Often in the midst of an argument, we cite an authority to back up what we say. As we saw in Chapter 3, this is a standard way of offering assurances. In citing an authority, instead of giving reasons for what we say, we indicate that someone (the authority cited) could give them.
Although logicians sometimes speak of the fallacy of appealing to author- ities, there is often nothing wrong with citing authorities or experts to sup- port what we say. An authority is a person or institution with a privileged position concerning certain information. Through training, a doctor is an ex- pert on certain diseases. A person who works in the Department of Agricul- ture can be an expert on America’s soybean production. Someone who grew up in the swamps might be an expert on trapping muskrats. Because some people stand in a better position to know things than others, there is noth- ing improper about citing them as authorities. In fact, an appeal to experts and authorities is essential if we are to make up our minds on subjects out- side our own range of competence.
At the same time, appeals to authority can be abused, and there are some obvious questions we should ask whenever such an appeal is made. Most obviously, we should always ask whether the person cited is, in fact, an au- thority at all. Moreover, it is not enough to be an authority in some area or other. We need to ask whether the person cited is an authority in the partic- ular area under discussion. If the answer to this question is “No,” then we are dealing with a fallacy of relevance. For example, being a movie star does not qualify a person to speak on the merits of a particular brand of tooth- paste. Endorsements by athletes of hair creams, deodorants, beer, and auto- mobiles are in the same boat. Of course, we have to be careful in making this charge. It is possible that certain athletes make systematic studies of deodor- ants before giving one deodorant their endorsement. But it is not likely.
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