Bob's blog – A skeptical lawyer

Argumentum ad verecundiam – fancy Latin name for trusting experts

Posted on May 12, 2018


“I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.” Actor Chris Robinson – who portrayed Dr. Rick Webber on the daytime drama General Hospital – touted Vicks Formula 44 cough syrup, and the commercial actually sold a lot of syrup. In fact, the advertisement was so effective that Vicks remade it with another TV doctor after Robinson was convicted of income tax evasion. Marketing does not have to be logical to be effective, and people still reference this 1980s television commercial because the deadpan delivery of faux medical advice was so memorably silly.

A television doctor recommending real medicine whimsically demonstrates the argument from authority logical fallacy, also known as appeal to authority or argumentum ad verecundiam (Latin for argument from reverence). An argument from authority claims you should consider a conclusion valid because an expert or other authority makes the argument. When someone, such as our TV doctor, uses himself as the authority, the fallacy is called appeal to self-authority or ipse dixit (Latin for “He himself has said it.”).

It is not fallacious to rely on qualified experts. I have real doctors that I trust to provide reliable medical advice. Some logicians use the more precise terms “appeal to improper authority” or “appeal to unqualified authority” to identify the fallacy.

In The Case for Christ and his other best-selling books, Lee Strobel interviews eminent apologists. They are smart people with impeccable credentials, and most of them study the New Testament for a living. They all believe Jesus’ resurrection is a historical fact. Strobel explains you should find the case for Christ conclusive “after reading expert after expert” and, if you are still not convinced, you should “seek out additional answers from well-respected experts” listed in his bibliography.[1] In other words, these experts know more than you do, so you should believe because they believe.

Evidentialists also appeal to lawyers as experts on Jesus’ resurrection. After Sir Lionel Luckhoo (1914-1997) obtained an astounding 245 consecutive murder acquittals, the Guinness Book of World Records named him “World’s Most Successful Lawyer.” Queen Elizabeth II knighted him – twice. Strobel says Sir Lionel studied Jesus’ resurrection for years before declaring:

I say unequivocally that the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ is so overwhelming that it compels acceptance by proof which leaves absolutely no room for doubt.

Apologetic books and websites commonly feature Sir Lionel’s pronouncement and similar quotes by other prestigious lawyers, such as Sir Edward Clarke, Judge Irwin Linton, and Prof. Simon Greenleaf.

So should you believe in Jesus’ resurrection because scholars and lawyers tell you it happened? Atheist and agnostic scholars boast credentials that equal or exceed those of evangelical scholars, and they say it didn’t happen.

When faced with conflicting opinions of opposing experts – all of whom know more about the subject at hand than you do, how do you decide what to believe? Juries must often evaluate conflicting expert opinions, and the law provides two primary guidelines for doing so. First, does the expert base his[2] opinion on sufficient evidence?[3] Second, does the expert’s specialized knowledge help you understand the evidence?[4]

When it comes to Jesus’ resurrection, you cannot simply accept authoritative pronouncements from scholars and lawyers. You must look at whether the facts support their opinions. For example, some apologists quote Lord Chief Justice Darling:

In its favour as a living truth there exists such overwhelming evidence, positive and negative, factual and circumstantial, that no intelligent jury in the world could fail to bring in the verdict that the resurrection story is true.

This sounds impressive, but did Lord Darling have any facts to support this conclusion? In fact, no one knows whether Lord Darling made such a claim. The purported quote apparently originated with a book published more than thirty years after Lord Darling’s death – Man Alive by Michael Green. Green claimed that “Lord Chief Justice Darling” made this pronouncement at a dinner party. However, Lord Darling was never Lord Chief Justice[5] and Green, who was six years old when Lord Darling died, does not reveal where he heard the story.

[1] Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ 270 (Zondervan 1998).

[2] As far as I know, evidentialist experts are all men.

[3] Federal Rule of Evidence 702.

[4] Cayuga Indian Nation of New York v. Pataki, 165 F. Supp. 2d 266, 303‑04 (N.D.N.Y. 2001) rev’d on other grounds 413 F.3d 266 (2nd Cir. 2005).

[5] Graeme Smith, Was the Tomb Empty? A Lawyer Weighs the Evidence for the Resurrection 30-14 (Monarch Books 2014).