Appealing To Authority
Posted by apgaylard on October 10, 2007
I’ve come across some interesting authoritative statements recently. I have read about a Nobel Laureate along with a distinguished academic with a host of articles in Nature endorsing surprising views.
This prompted me to think about a common logical fallacy: The “Appeal to Authority” (argumentum ad verecundiam) and to test these pronouncements against its definition.
Here is how different sources define the fallacy. They show some variation, but the core of the concept is clear.
“…appealing to the testimony of an authority outside his special field. Anyone can give opinions or advice; the fallacy only occurs when the reason for assenting to the conclusion is based on following the improper authority.”
“…consisting on basing the truth value of an assertion on the authority, knowledge or position of the person asserting it.”
“… appeal to the beliefs of someone based on something other than their authority on the subject.”
“This fallacy is committed when the person in question is not a legitimate authority on the subject.” 
So, this fallacy comes into effect when the authority cited is not a legitimate authority on the subject at hand and when we are expected to assent to a conclusion on their say-so.
That said; appeals to authority can be legitimate. A common example is consulting a doctor, for instance. However, even a good appeal to authority should not be viewed, on its own, as a particularly strong argument. Experts can be mistaken and frequently are; though they are more likely to be right than someone without their particular knowledge.
What tests should be applied to establish the legitimacy of an authority? A “widely accepted” set of criteria are summarised in the list below. 
Let’s review the examples I briefly mentioned to earlier and examine whether they are reasonable or fallacious appeals to authority.
“… Whether a physicist was included among the peer-reviewers of my paper I could not possibly say. However, for his information, I continually run my ideas passed highly competent quantum physicists (including a Nobel Laureate), so he should have no qualms concerning at the very least, their plausibility.” 
This is an interesting example. It is clearly an appeal to authority; it is asserting that running ideas past a number of “experts” constitutes strong evidence of (at least) plausibility. It is deployed to directly confront criticism.
How does it fare against the “legitimacy criteria”? It looks like expertise and scope are met: quantum physicists are invoked on the application of quantum theory.
The problems start with agreement. The particular set of quantum mechanical ideas explored in the paper is controversial to say the least. They are certainly outside the realms of observed quantum mechanical effects and find no place in standard texts. In fact, the author himself concedes that one of his principal assertions “… is still a matter of conjecture.”
It is impossible to comment on any possible bias, as the identities of the experts are not disclosed. Our consideration of agreement indicates that this “field” (application of quantum theory without regard to scale) may not be considered to have legitimacy.
The clincher is identifiability. The authorities are not identified. We do not know who they are; what their areas of expertise are, or even if they would agree with the words put in their mouths. We have no way of assessing any personal bias.
The conclusion is that this argument is most definitely fallacious. The critic should not, actually, have his qualms allayed. This example clearly shows the importance of a cited authority being identified.
Example 2: Homeopath Dana Ullman arguing for the physical plausibility of homeopathy on the blog “hawk-handsaw”.
“… I’m pleased that you’re already familiar with the newest research from Rustom Roy, PhD, of the material sciences department at Penn State. You know that he’s gotten 18 articles published in a journal called NATURE…and you know about his newest research testing different spectoscropic [sic] analysis, he was able to differentiate between two different homeopathic medicines and two different potencies that were beyond Avogardo’s number.” 
This combines an appeal to authority with an appeal to data. Unfortunately the source for the “… newest research testing different spectoscropic [sic] analysis …” is not mentioned (perhaps this recent paper by Rao et al ? However, this is a little unclear as Roy is not the first author). Nonetheless the thrust of this excerpt from a longer argument is that because a particular authority (“Rustom [sic] Roy, PhD”) has published this work then it has a particular strength or validity.
Rustum Roy certainly does have considerable expertise. On a point of accuracy he has no published articles in Nature, however, he does have 13 published letters (See Appendix). These are, of course, prestigious publications in their own right. Letters are described by Nature  as “… short reports of original research focused on an outstanding finding whose importance means that it will be of interest to scientists in other fields.”
So, is the testing of homeopathic preparations (water-ethanol solutions) within the scope of Roy’s expertise? The Nature contributions are exclusively focussed on (mostly crystalline) solids. Neither are his other areas of expertise (whole person healing, religion, sexuality) relevant. Roy does, though, list two contributions on the structure of water, published in his journal “Materials Research Innovations”. These do not, however, appear in his “Bibliography of Scientific Papers”. Also, the journal in question does not have the content of the papers peer reviewed, as is standard practise, but the authors . This so-called “Super Peer Review” process is clearly deeply flawed. Given this, along with their omission from his listing of scientific papers, I shall exclude them from consideration.
It is clear that there is no agreement in this area. The work alluded to asserts measurable differences between different homeopathic preparations. Science does not concede that solutions diluted beyond the Avogadro limit can show the asserted differences.
Moving onto bias, Roy asserts that he has no involvement with homeopathy  but he is a strong advocate of unorthodox therapies . He is the founder and chair of Friends of Health. He says that this involvement: “… started with his friendship with many of the field’s world leaders—Linus Pauling, Norman Cousins, Andrew Weil, Deepak Chopra, Larry Dossey …” and that “… He dedicates half his time to this work.” Further, he says that this organisation is a “…champion for all ancestral healing practices …” That he has founded and gives half his time to a group offering such blanket and, by definition, uncritical support, to these practises must represent a considerable potential for bias.
If we define the field under discussion as the chemistry and physics of water-ethanol solutions, then it does not lack legitimacy. Finally, in this instance, at least this authority is clearly identified.
What does this analysis tell us? That even citing a distinguished academic expert does not necessarily mean that fallacious reasoning has been avoided. The cited authority still needs to be operating within his sphere of expertise; expressing views on which there is considerable expert agreement and avoiding the trap of personal bias.
Recognising that the argument also contained at least some attempt to cite data, it is interesting to note that (assuming I have identified the correct source) the work may be seriously flawed [14, 15]. This would not be the first time that Roy has mistakenly made extraordinary claims for the properties of water .
This underlines the fact that a good appeal is made to an authority is not a particularly strong argument. Even experts make mistakes.
Rustum Roy’s Publications in Nature
773. R. Roy, D. Agrawal, J. Cheng, and S. Gedevanishvili, “Unexpected sintering of powdered metals parts in microwaves”, Nature, 399, 664 (June 17, 1999).
771. R. Roy, D. Agrawal, J. Cheng, and S. Gedevanishvili, “Full sintering of powder-metal bodies in a microwave field,” Nature, 399, 668 (1999).
660. Roy, R. and D. Agrawal, “Thermal-Expansion Materials Not So New,” Nature 388:433 (July 31, 1997).
642. Zhao,X-Zhong, R. Roy, K. A. Cherian, and A. Badzian, “Hydrothrmal Growth of Diamond in Metal-C-H2O Systems,” Nature 385(6): 513-515 (1997).
536. Paulus, William J., S. Komarneni and R. Roy, “Bulk Synthesis and Selective Exchange of Strontium Ions in Na4Mg6Al4Si4O20F4 Mica,” Nature 357:571-573 (June 18, 1992).
524. Malla, P.B., P. Ravindranathan, S. Komarneni and R. Roy, “Intercalation of Copper Metal Clusters in Montmorillonite,” Letters to Nature 351:555-557 (June 13, 1991).
416. Roy, R., “Diamonds at Low Pressure,” Nature 325:17-18 (Jan. 1, 1987).
406. Yarbrough, W.A. and R. Roy, “Extraordinary Effects of Mortar-and-Pestle Grinding on Microstructure of Sintered Alumina Gel,” Nature 322(6077):347-349 (24 July 1986).
356. Komarneni, S. and R. Roy, “Use of g-Zirconium Phosphate for Cs Removal from Radioactive Waste,” Nature 299:707-708 (1982).
329. McCarthy, G. J., W. B. White, R. Roy, B. E. Scheetz, S. Komarneni, D. K. Smith and D. M. Roy, “Interactions Between Nuclear Waste and Surrounding Rock,” Nature 273:216-217.
239. Katz, G., A. W. Nicol and R. Roy, “New Topotaxy in Precipitation from Spinel,” Nature 223:609-610 (1969).
110. Datta, R. K. and R. Roy, “Dependence on Temperature of the Distribution of Cations in Oxide Spinels,” Nature 191:169-170 (1961).
109. Roy, R. and H. M. Cohen, “Effects of High Pressure on Glass: A Possible Piezometer for the 100-Kilobar Region,” Nature 190:798-799 (1961).
92. Dachille, F. and R. Roy, “High Pressure Phase Transformations in Laboratory Mechanical Mixers and Mortars,” Nature 186:34 (1960).
83. Aramaki, S. and R. Roy, “Revised Equilibrium Diagram for the System Al2O3-SiO2,” Nature 184:631-632 (1959).
74. Dachille, F. and R. Roy “The Spinel-Olivine Inversion in Mg2GeO4,” Nature 183:1257 (1959).
Searching for “Rustum Roy” on Nature’s own website returned the following results:
Leave well alone and stick to teaching what you know
Nature 435, 276-276 Correspondence
The perils of peer review
Rustum Roy, James R. Ashburn
Nature 414, 393-394 Correspondence
erratum: Full sintering of powdered-metal bodies in a microwave field
Rustum Roy, Dinesh Agrawal, Jiping Cheng, Shalva Gedevanishvili
Nature 401, 304-304 Letter
Full sintering of powdered-metal bodies in a microwave field
Rustum Roy, Dinesh Agrawal, Jiping Cheng, Shalva Gedevanishvili
Nature 399, 668-670 Letter
Missing the mark on misconduct
Nature 395, 835-836 Correspondence
Thermal-expansion materials not so new
Rustum Roy, Dinesh Agrawal
Nature 388, 433-433 Scientific Correspondence
Hydrothermal growth of diamond in metal–C–H2O systems
Xing-Zhong Zhao, Rustum Roy, Kuruvilla A. Cherian, Andrzej Badzian
Nature 385, 513-515 Letter
Apologies to Bianconi
Nature 359, 472-472 Correspondence
Bulk synthesis and selective exchange of strontium ions in Na4Mg6Al4Si4O20F4 mica.
William J. Paulus, Sridhar Komarneni, Rustum Roy
Nature 357, 571-573 Letter
Rustum Roy replies
Nature 354, 9-9 Correspondence
Diamonds at low pressure
Nature 325, 17-18 News and Views
Extraordinary effects of mortar-and-pestle grinding on microstructure of sintered alumina gel.
W. A. Yarbrough, Rustum Roy
Nature 322, 347-349 Letter
PATRICK J. HANNAN, JOHN F. CHRISTMAN, RUSTUM ROY
Nature 317, 106-106 Correspondence
Too much high-energy physics
Nature 304, 579-579 Correspondence
Use of γ-zirconium phosphate for Cs removal from radioactive waste
Sridhar Komarneni, Rustum Roy
Nature 299, 707-708 Letter
Interactions between nuclear waste and surrounding rock
G. J. MCCARTHY, W. B. WHITE, RUSTUM ROY, B. E. SCHEETZ, S. KOMARNENI, D. K. SMITH, D. M. ROY
Nature 273, 216-217 Letter
New Topotaxy in Precipitation from Spinel
GERALD KATZ, ALASTAIR W. NICOL, RUSTUM ROY
Nature 223, 609-610 Letter
Dependence on Temperature of the Distribution of Cations in Oxide Spinels
RANAJIT K. DATTA, RUSTUM ROY
Nature 191, 169-170 Letter
Effects of High Pressure on Glass: a Possible Piezometer for the 100-Kilobar Region
RUSTUM ROY, H. M. COHEN
Nature 190, 798-799 Letter
High-pressure Phase Transformations in Laboratory Mechanical Mixers and Mortars
FRANK DACHILLE, RUSTUM ROY
Nature 186, 34-71 Letter
Revised Equilibrium Diagram for the System Al2O3-SiO2
SHIGER ARAMAKI, RUSTUM ROY
Nature 184, 631-632 Letter
The Spinel–Olivine Inversion in Mg2GeO4
FRANK DACHILLE, RUSTUM ROY
Nature 183, 1257-1257 Letter
An additional search provided:
Intercalation of copper metal clusters in montmorillonite
P. B. Malla, P. Ravindranathan, S. Komarneni, R. Roy
Nature 351, 555 – 557 (13 Jun 1991) Letter
Comparing the two lists we see that item 773 is missing from the searches in Nature. If anyone could verify this I would be grateful. I would not like to think that I was failing to count a legitimate prestigious reference.
Of the remaining 15 publications, 13 are letters; one is scientific correspondence and one is listed as “News and Views”.
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