The Appeal to Authority

Have you met my friend Dan here? He’s an expert in politics. How do I know he’s an expert in politics? Well, he has a political science degree from college™, and anyone who got a degree from college™ is automatically an expert in things. You can’t just pay like $10k a year, barely squeak by with a C average in some topic and not earn the title of expert in your field of study. That’s the way college™ works. Duh.

You gotta love the appeal to authority. That logical fallacy wherein someone proclaims themselves or a third party to be an expert on something simply because of some degree of schooling. Get into any kind of online debate? At some point someone has no doubt pulled out the Appeal to Authority card and proudly slapped it down on the table.

This designation of “expert” is often doled out from a place of bias, i.e. I agree with this person, therefore I’ll deem them an expert to strengthen my own point. That, or it’s a title people are likely to bestow upon themselves in order to assert dominance over someone in a debate. It’s quite a disingenuous tactic, but works quite well on, and is often used by individuals who get into arguments and desperately need an easy upper hand.

Reza Aslan was notably thrust into the spotlight via an interview he took part in on Fox News in 2013. The interview was a train wreck for two reasons. One, the host continually questioned his qualification to write a book about Christianity while being a Muslim, something that should have been a non-issue. Two, his response to his qualifications being questioned was to merely throw out continued appeals to authority. At one point, he literally said “It’s not that I’m just some Muslim writing about Jesus. I am an expert with a PhD in the history of religions.”

*It should be noted that Mr Aslan holds his PhD in theological studies, which is essentially a philosophical study of religious thought and tradition, as opposed to a religious studies PhD, which is a non-biased study of the actual history of religions. He does not in fact hold a “PhD in the history of religions” as stated, but merely a B.A. in that field.

One doesn’t need to be an “expert” on anything to write a book about that topic, mainly because the term “expert” is completely subjective and not an official title. Holding a college degree doesn’t necessarily qualify one as an expert in anything. This is the lie people continually buy into that overstates the value of many college degrees and continually drives the cost of commercial education into the stratosphere. Anyone who has done the requisite amount of research can write a book or become somewhat of an authority on a topic. All it takes, is merely doing the work.

If you were looking for historical data about the US Civil War, who would you deem more of an “expert” in the field: a kid who barely passed a class in college on the subject, but whom has a shiny degree in history from college™, or someone who never went to college™, but is a complete history buff, having read over a thousand books about historical wars? Surely you’d go with the kid, since he has the college™ degree, and therefore is the “expert”, right?

What about autodidacts? Guys like Einstein, who largely taught themselves subjects like math and physics. He did take math and physics in school, but did poorly, largely because he continually skipped class, preferring to work on these subjects on his own time. He received bad grades in math and physics however, therefore he can’t possibly have been an expert in either field. Meanwhile, his teachers with their assorted degrees, more than likely didn’t even make it into the footnotes of those history books that contain Einstein.

How about everybody’s favorite boomer anarchist, Tom Morello? A guy who occasionally makes astonishingly one-dimensional political and sociological hot takes, but continually hides behind the fact that he holds a political science degree from Harvard to deflect criticism:

Sweet appeal to authority there, Thomas. Make sure you whip that piece of paper out whenever possible to trump differing opinions, without ever actually debating ideas. And, look, he graduated from Harvard no less. The school that had a Jewish quota up until the 1960’s and is currently involved in litigation over discriminating against Asians. Sounds like a machine that should probably be raged against.🤔

In short, you should be wary of anyone proclaiming themselves to be an expert on something, because more than likely, their level of expertise is overshadowed by their level of narcissism.