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<xTITLE>Fallacious Argument Of The Month: The Appeal To Authority</xTITLE>

Fallacious Argument Of The Month: The Appeal To Authority

by Diane J. Levin
January 2010

From Mediation Channel

Diane J. Levin

Fallacious Argument of the Month - the Appeal to AuthorityEach month, in pursuit of better arguments and improved public discourse, I highlight a different logical fallacy. This month I invite you to consider the irrelevant appeal to authority.

People of a certain generation perhaps recall advertisements for Sanka decaffeinated coffee in which actor Robert Young, known for playing a doctor on a popular seventies television drama, Marcus Welby, M.D., warns against the health risks caffeine poses and recommends Sanka to TV viewers.

In Chapter 6 of his popular work, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini describes the influence this particular ad wielded in shaping the coffee purchasing decisions of its audience:

From the first time I saw it, the most intriguing feature for me in the Robert Young Sanka commercial was its ability to use the influence of the authority principle without ever providing a real authority. The appearance of authority was enough. This tells me something important about unthinking reactions to authority figures. When in a click, whirr mode, we are often as vulnerable to the symbols of authority as to the substance.

The well-worn, now comic phrase “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV” has its provenance in ads such as this one. But our automatic reaction to authority is no laughing matter.

Clever speakers understand how easy it is to manipulate the public’s deference to perceived experts, using the appeal to authority to disarm our reason in their efforts to persuade us to their point of view. The appeal to authority may assume several forms, including its best known, the irrelevant appeal to authority (invoking an authority figure on a subject on which the authority figure is no expert, such as the Sanka ad). To gird ourselves against such manipulations of our reason, we should perhaps heed the advice of sixties-era protest signs: Question Authority.

By the way, if you’ve enjoyed this series on fallacious arguments and want to learn more about the application of logic in everyday life, there is no better resource than Robert J. Gula’s Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language. It’s available in print and also for free downloading in PDF.

Biography


Diane Levin, J.D., is a mediator, dispute resolution trainer, negotiation coach, writer, and lawyer based in Marblehead, Massachusetts, who has instructed people from around the world in the art of talking it out. Since 1995 she has helped clients resolve disputes involving tort, employment, business, estate, family, and real property issues, and serves on numerous mediation panels, including the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Training and coaching are an enduring passion -- she has taught thousands of people to resolve conflict, negotiate better, or become mediators -- from Croatian judges to Fortune 500 executives.

 

A geek at heart, Levin consults on web design and social media to professionals.  She blogs about ADR at the intersection of law, science, and popular culture at the award-winning MediationChannel.com, regarded as one of the world's top ADR blogs.  She also tracks and catalogues ADR blogs world-wide at ADRblogs.com, where she has created a community for bloggers writing about constructive ways to resolve disputes.

 

web site: http://dianelevin.com



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