The Appeal to Authority is not a formal fallacy, but an “informal” one, a fancy way of admitting that arguments in the form of “Because I said so” are often valid and sound. If these arguments were always a fallacy, there’d be no use asking potential employees for their resumes, no point in asking, “What are my chances, doc?”, really no reason to ask anybody anything about which you are uncertain.
On the other hand, the argument becomes a fallacy routinely in the hands of the media and politicians. Surf over to Slate (I won’t link), tune in to NPR, or listen to Debbie Wasserman Schultz speak on nearly any subject for examples.
So much is common knowledge. And I think fallacious instances of “Because I said so” are on the increase. This is because of many reasons—the usual suspects: scientism, ideology, political correctness, privilege, insularity, etc.—but one occasion for sin, a certain form of the fallacy, is not well known.
This is the form “We now know…”, usually put in service of some sociological, educational, psychological, or other loose science, like the effects of deadly rampant out-of-control tipping-point global warming.
Just like its father, the “We now know…” form of the argument from authority is sometimes valid and sound. A journalist might write, “We now know the neutrino has mass…” and cite some press release put out by some university. The journalist will be right, because in this case (you’ll have to trust me) the claim is true. But the “we” part is risible. The problem is not just that the reporter himself boasts indirectly of an expertise he does not have and has not earned, but that he encourages the same flippant behavior in his audience. And the audience, duly flattered, makes itself part of the “we”. “We now know” is then on everybody’s lips.
For many propositions from the hard sciences, as said, this is mostly harmless, because the “We now know…” won’t be fallacious. The problem is that the knowledge comes cheap and is thus subject to easy misinterpretation and incorrect extrapolation. This is because complex scientific propositions are usually highly conditional, filled with technical premises and other presuppositions, and these rarely make it to the popular level. People go off half cocked, as it were.
Actual hard scientists, in their own fields of competence, rarely fall into the trap, not taking anybody’s word for anything which they can prove for themselves. And so knowledge in the fields manned by rigorous technicians increases. But since nobody bats 1.000 and not every claim can be personally checked, the occasional error slips by.
No, the real problem, as usual, comes from fields which make fewer demands on their practitioners, and fewer still to none on their popular audiences. It’s going to be a man of some mental training who bothers to seek out and to read anything about neutrinos. But sociological claims and the like are available to one and all. Indeed, they are hard to escape, like (bad) music in restaurants.
The problem starts at the “top”. Here’s a typical example, the paper “Taking a Long View on What We Now Know about Social and Environmental Accountability and Reporting” in the Electronic Journal of Radical Organisation Theory. The paper is filled with “We now know…” propositions which are at best only sketchily supported, and others that are only wild surmises. Results from papers like this are fed to students and the public, and those who take joy in that most vague of notions “sustainability”, will uncritically add the propositions to the list of things “We now know…”
You can’t really blame the students, the dears, at least not fully. The serious fault is with inexpert experts, a large and growing class, a growth given impetus by the swelling of higher education. More people earning a “degree” means more professors, and since the gifts of intelligence are varied, this means a necessary expansion in “degrees” which require less effort (from both parties). It is in these fields the “We now know…” is mainly found. Compounding the problem is that the students who carry these “We now knows…” feel that their beliefs have been certified by their degrees.
The solution would thus appear to be a return to (or increase in, since it still partially exists) some idea of educational elitism, the idea that some forms of knowledge are better or more important than others. But give our insatiable craving for Equality, I don’t see it happening.