A canna’ change the laws of physics

Scotty, The Naked Time, stardate 1704.3, Episode 7

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.”[1]

“…consisting on basing the truth value of an assertion on the authority, knowledge or position of the person asserting it.”[2]

“… appeal to the beliefs of someone based on something other than their authority on the subject.”[3]

This fallacy is committed when the person in question is not a legitimate authority on the subject.” [4]

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. [4]

  1. The person has sufficient expertise in the subject matter in question.

  2. The claim being made by the person is within her area(s) of expertise.

  3. There is an adequate degree of agreement among the other experts in the subject in question.

  4. The person in question is not significantly biased.

  5. The area of expertise is a legitimate area or discipline.

  6. The authority in question must be identified.

These could be summarised as: expertise, scope, agreement, bias, legitimacy and identifiability.

Let’s review the examples I briefly mentioned to earlier and examine whether they are reasonable or fallacious appeals to authority.

Example 1:   An author responding to criticism [5] of his manipulation of quantum theory to justify homeopathy [6]. 

“… 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.” [7]

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.”[6]

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 bloghawk-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.” [8]

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 [9]? 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 [10] 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 [11].  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 [12] but he is a strong advocate of unorthodox therapies [13].  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 [16].

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 

Consulting Roy’s own website the following 16 publications in Nature are listed. (Reference numbers from Roy’s bibliography)

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

Rustum Roy

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

Rustum Roy

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

Rustum Roy

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

Rustum Roy

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

Chance encounters


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


Nature 273, 216-217 Letter

New Topotaxy in Precipitation from Spinel


Nature 223, 609-610 Letter

Dependence on Temperature of the Distribution of Cations in Oxide Spinels


Nature 191, 169-170 Letter

Effects of High Pressure on Glass: a Possible Piezometer for the 100-Kilobar Region


Nature 190, 798-799 Letter

High-pressure Phase Transformations in Laboratory Mechanical Mixers and Mortars


Nature 186, 34-71 Letter

Revised Equilibrium Diagram for the System Al2O3-SiO2


Nature 184, 631-632 Letter

The Spinel–Olivine Inversion in Mg2GeO4


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. 

[Edit.  Thanks to some leg-work by hawk-handsaw it now seems clear that 773 was never published in Nature.  Roy did, though have 771 published in the same issue.]

Of the remaining 15 publications, 13 are letters; one is scientific correspondence and one is listed as “News and Views”.

3 Responses to “Appealing To Authority”

  1. wilsontown said

    Lots of good stuff here. See, even homeopaths posting bollocks can teach us something.

    I did find the missing Nature reference. It seems that Roy has listed it wrongly. It is “Full sintering of powdered-metal bodies in a microwave field”, and it’s Nature 399, 668-670. He does have a lot of publications, so perhaps not surprising that there’s the odd error in there. It also seems to have been cited wrongly in other publications, so I wonder if a)People have relied on Roy’s list for citations, or b)Roy has relied on a wrong citation in compiling the list.

    Flagrant geekery, I know. I need to get out more.

  2. apgaylard said

    Thanks. That reference is listed as no.771 on Roy’s list. I wondered whether no.773 was ever published, or whether it was published as 771? The dates and page numbers are very close. Is there anything with Roy as a co-author in Nature, 399, 664?

    Generally these two bits of argument have been on my mind. The Milgrom case is very clear. I have, however, been in two minds about the Ullman argument, given that there is some attempt to refer to data. Lack of proper citation for the data and the emphasis on Roy’s authority tipped the balance for me, but it may be arguable.

    For me, the main lesson from Ullman was how important it is to take a reasonably structured look at the nature of the authority cited. I must point out that it’s not Roy’s fault that Ullman got his publication record wrong.

  3. wilsontown said

    Hm, hadn’t appreciated that Roy appears to be citing the same paper twice, once incorrectly. Again, I think it’s not entirely surprising there would be the odd mistake in such a long list of references.

    For what it’s worth, the paper that takes up p. 664 of Nature 399 is “Identification of two sources of carbon monoxide in comet Hale–Bopp”, by Michael A. DiSanti, Michael J. Mumma, Neil Dello Russo, Karen Magee-Sauer, Robert Novak and Terrence W. Rettig. Not anything to do with Roy, even if he does seem to be away with the comets every so often.

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