The appeal to authority implies that an expert’s opinion is a universal truth, and it’s a tactic many writers use – often in the absence of evidence – despite it being somewhat of a logical fallacy.
The appeal to authority relies on a basic misconception: if an authority figure says something, it must be true.
This is a misconception because a health expert’s “authority” – as in their level of expertise (perceived or actual) – cannot and does not ensure their claims are true.
While we might assume claims are more likely to be true when they’re coming from an individual with a high level of expertise on the subject at hand, there are no guarantees.
That’s why an appeal to an authority isn’t a valid argument if you’re using it to imply absolute truth.
This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t quote health experts in our health articles and blogs.
What it does mean, though, is that we need to be very aware of how we’re quoting these experts.
Asking for an expert’s perspective on a new piece of research or a health topic isn’t an appeal to authority when you have made it clear that it’s purely an opinion.
On the other hand, quoting someone who is making health claims in the absence of evidence is an appeal to authority – essentially, you’re trusting someone of authority to provide facts that have no scientific basis.
Problems arise if the appeal to authority approach is used instead of relying on good quality evidence – namely, your readers are being misled and, depending on the nature of the topic, you could be putting their health at risk.
Appeal to authority in practice
Still confused about the appeal to authority fallacy? Here’s a tongue-in-cheek example (taken from this lengthy article on the topic).
I’m not a doctor, but I play one on the hit series “Bimbos and Studmuffins in the OR.” You can take it from me that when you need a fast acting, effective and safe pain killer there is nothing better than MorphiDope 2000. That is my considered medical opinion.
Or, to put it another way:
- Famous Health Blogger claims to be/establishes self as an expert on the paleo diet
- Famous Health Blogger says paleo diet cures autism
- Reader believes paleo diet cures autism
Before the explosion of health blogs, expertise in the medical field was measured with credentials. These days, credentials are overshadowed by a sexy online presence, celebrity status, and a high number of followers.
More and more people are putting their faith in this new wave of health experts and relying on them to provide accurate medical advice.
For established health bloggers, being passionate about health and wanting to share that passion is a wonderful thing – but with great power comes great responsibility.
As writers, we set the boundaries of what’s acceptable – knowing that many readers will believe a health claim is true just because someone of ‘expert status’ said it in an article or blog.
Therefore, it’s up to us to ensure that our writing contains health claims founded on evidence, and quotes from health experts who are reliable and credible – and that involves measuring expertise responsibly.
Measuring expertise responsibly
When you’re looking for sources, measuring the level of expertise requires a flexible approach and will always depend on the nature of the topic you’re writing about.
In some cases, health bloggers do have a significant amount of expertise on a topic – more so than other qualified professionals.
Measuring expertise involves looking at the whole person – their history, credentials, publications, research areas of focus, and more – to weigh up whether they are the best source to provide a viewpoint.
Quotes from authority figures enhance your writing because they bring in new perspectives. We assume those with significant expertise will provide truthful and factual information – but even professors and surgeons have bias, conflicts of interest and make simple errors.
How to avoid using the appeal to authority in your writing
Tips on keeping your writing fallacy-free include:
- Being clear that your health expert’s quote is an opinion, not a universal truth – there’s nothing wrong with quoting an opinion, as long as you set the boundaries
- Reading the original medical research – if you’re writing about a health topic, refer to the research instead of using a quote from an expert as the source of the results – always read the original study yourself
- Understanding the topic – take the time to do your background reading so you can understand the history and breadth of the topic, including what others have written about it
- Being aware of your audience – your audience may have a low literacy level, or they could be highly educated – know who you’re writing for and keep their expectations on top of mind as you write
- Finding experts with the appropriate level of expertise to give advice on the topic – if you’re looking a perspective on a new pregnancy study, find an obstetrician or a GP specialising in prenatal care – as opposed to a parenting (“mummy”) blogger – on the other hand, if you’re writing about changes to the healthcare budget and what they mean for mums, then a blogger could be a better choice
- Speaking to more than one expert – you could find you’re presented with two very opposing views and this will help you to understand the significance of the issue
- Remaining critical – when you’re speaking to your source, consider what others might say on the topic and ask yourself it the majority tend to agree (if they don’t, it’s likely to be a controversial viewpoint)
- Identifying the authority – name your expert and identify their professional associations or affiliations
- Being aware of bias or conflicts of interest – research your authority figure to determine any potential issues or influences.