There is, I think, a muted historical side-note to every discussion on ad verecundiam. As neat historians will tell you, philosophy and science have risen precisely against blind faith in authority. To take a conveniant example of both in one,Thales didn’t say everything is made out of water simpliciter or that everything is made out of water because Zugma-Bugma said so. As was the Milesian School’s wont, they argued – poorly, but cunningly – for what they claimed. “Water is best!” was Thales’ one-liner, but it did not end there. Russell adds, not without a touch of irony: “The statement that everything is made of water is to be regarded as a scientific hypothesis, and by no means a foolish one. Twenty years ago, the received view was that everything is made of hydrogen, which is two thirds of water.” (Russell, 1946, p. 44). And that to say nothing about the geometrical, utterly non-religious proofs attributed to Mr. Thales. Ta-naa!
But in a way argumentation theory also had its incubation in the revolt against authority – although an authority of a less religious stripe. The problem of authority in arguments is thus pressing: if, in arguing, we sometimes appeal to experts, and if, in appealing to experts, we are not invariably committing a fallacy, where do we draw the line? Despite its immediate applications (“tell me where the line is and I’ll tell them if their appeal to authority is fallacious or not”), this is a very philosophical issue. I say “philosophical” because of this question underlying the abovementioned one: What makes an argument fallacious?
Really? Are we still floundering around this question? I think so. Pointless? Maybe. Instructive? Sure. Engageons-nous!
The problem of part-time fallacies is that you have to identify a class (The X’s) and a subset within this class (The “Bad” X’s) without saying to much about the specific socio-cultural circumstances pertaining to the evil subset. To do otherwise would be fishy: if we judge the fallaciousness of arguments by their “field”, then relativism and ultimate futility are not very far. I keep putting “argument” in italics because of the solution found by Walton (1995; 1997; 2006a). As his pragmatic theory of fallacy led him, Walton found a cute way out of the dilemma of appeal authority. First, he makes distinction in the meaning of “Bad” from “The ‘Bad’ X’s”: there are weak-Bad and fallacious-Bad.
Many of these cases are not fallacious ad verecundiam arguments, but are weak arguments based on appeal to expert opinion. (2006, p. 754)
Unfortunately, the distinction is only gradual and he continues with showing how some weak arguments are “not so bad that [they] should be called fallacious” (754). But anyway, blurred as it may be, the category of “fallacious-Bad” appeals to authority is there. Thus, assuming there are some clear-cut cases which exhibit the essential properties of an appeal to authority which is fallacious-bad, what would such a case look like?
The fallacious cases seem to be the ones where the arguer who appeals to expert opinion tries to preclude or shut down the examination interval. The fallacious cases, according to Walton (1997), are ones where the arguer tries to block off or shut down the possibility of critical questioning of the appeal to expert opinion through the use of certain argumentation tactics. Often these tactics are of a pre-emptive sort, showing that the proponent of the appeal to expert opinion is not really open to critical questioning at all, even though she may give a surface appearance of being so.
This, however, is not a solution to the problem we were formulating. Remember the italics? We are interested in the fallaciousness of the argument from expert opinion, not in the fallaciousness of the moves with which the arguer tries to preclude or shut down the examination interval. If the analyst identifies some speech acts that might fit the description, a “blocking move” as it is termed in (Walton, 1997), then those speech acts, not the ones constituting the argument, are fallacious. If the authority is invoked as the last word on the subject, then it is the linguistic means of conveying this that are fallacious, not the argument itself.
Thus, if not by blocking a legitimate shift to an examination dialogue, when are appeals to authority fallacious?
There are certainly many things that can go wrong with the authority. The classic procedure is to identify a scheme, a couple of critical questions and a set of criteria for judging when those critical questions are observed. The student is advised to do this: take the raw text, identify the scheme, formulate the critical questions, see whether there are well dealt with, judge.
But notice, again, the more philosophical question underlying this advice: The only way an argument can be fallacious is by not having its critical questions well observed. Thus, a fallacious argument is a very very very bad argument. This seems also to be the position of the pragma-dialectical approach (Eeemeren & Grootendorst, 1992; Wagemans, 2011). Only a couple of the rules of the critical discussion apply to the argumentation stage, and those rules tell us about the argument scheme and whether the critical questions pertaining to it are well-answered. In his Appeal to expert opinion (1997), Walton himself is at pains to give the most accurate description of the scheme and a well organized taxonomy of all the critical questions that might relate to that scheme (with sub-questions and everything).
The expert might be irrelevant, he might be biased, wrongly quoted etc. This, however, does not guard us against “The fallacy of appealing to the opinions of the doctor who secretly wants your grandmother dead because she is maddly in love with your grandfather”.
Assuming, however, this sort of atomism is not around the corner, one cannot help asking … is this it? “A fallacious argument is a very-very bad one”? If not, how else can an argument be fallacious, i.e. against the rules?