also known as the argumentum ad verecundiam or the ipse dixit fallacy
A pro football player may like Cadillacs, but football players aren’t experts on automobiles…
A man in a white lab coat is recommending a particular pain killer, but a lab coat does not make him a medical or pharmaceuticals expert…
4 out of 5 doctors recommend…but were only five doctors asked? and doctors of what?
Deference to authority is a reasonable stance and a heuristic we use throughout the day in dealing with relatively trivial decisions. After all, authorities are supposed to know what they are talking about. However, accepting authority as the final word on a subject can lead to problems. If our source is weighing in on an area that is outside their field, for example, then that source cannot be an authority. It’s seldom a bad idea to question authority.
A heuristic can be thought of as a mental short cut we use to help us make decisions quickly—a rule of thumb or a set of loose rules to guide decision-making in unfamiliar contexts. In fact, some claim heuristics are for lazy thinkers.
We may use a heuristic without even realizing it. For instance, the ‘experts’ say fat and salt are things to restrict in our diet, and our belief in that heuristic—that experts know what they are talking about—may influence the kinds of purchases we make at the grocery store. But we personally have not looked at any real evidence. We rely on the ‘experts.’
Once we have used the heuristic, we need to slow down our thinking for a bit and review our conclusion step-by-step in a deliberate way. Are specific studies being cited? Is there room for some other interpretation of the data? Heuristics don’t always yield the ‘right’ answer. So, we’re dealing with two issues: the reliability of heuristics and the nature of authority.
An authority typically has power or control in a particular sphere of activity, and that power is bestowed because others in the same field recognize the extensive knowledge possessed by the authority. An authority is not a person who struts about with an erect posture, speaks in a loud deep voice, ignores contributions of others, and tries to intimidate you or make you feel like an idiot. Authority is not about the manner or mode of presentation.
A person’s authority can be tested by looking at the characteristics all experts should possess: professionalism, currency and representativeness (see my earlier post, Who is an Expert? ).Once we’ve determined that those essential qualities are present, we need to look at the issues of availability, conformity, and possible anchoring effects.
Availability refers to the readiness with which we can access the heuristic (we seldom use heuristics that waste our time or that we can’t easily remember). Conformity (like representativeness) asks us to look at one authority’s claim in comparison with the views of other authorities in the same field. Is our authority in line with the rest of them? Is the authority relevant or off-topic? And it’s important to consider any possible anchoring effects that the authority may be using—are there any artificial limits being placed on what we are allowed to know? Finally, it’s important to consider the expert’s worldview and whether that may include unhelpful biases or assumptions. After all, experts can make mistakes too.