President Trump claimed that 3-5 million people voted illegally. In response, several media outlets have requested evidence to support such a startling claim. The combination of a bold claim coming from a prominent figure, with the difficulty finding any evidence to support the claim, creates a great example of the “appeal to authority.”

John Locke has long been credited as being one to the great thinkers that informed the the founders of the United States, and wrote the philosophical foundation of the American Revolution. His An Essay on Human Understanding contains language found both in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. In addition to these ideas, there is a latin phrase that he is credited with creating: ad verecundiam. More commonly known as the “appeal to authority.”

The thing about the appeal to authority, is that it is a lot harder to identify than people think. Essentially, it is valuing a person’s opinion because of their reputation or status, rather than based on the claims they make. It is really common for people to believe they are critically evaluating stuff they agree with, but then accuse the people they disagree with just appealing to a false authority. In fact, it almost seems like a Catch-22 when someone tries to explain their expertise to a non-expert, because the non-expert has no point of reference for what counts as expertise.

The reason this example is a good case-study of appeal to authority is that you can trace the evidence with a fair amount of precision. My approach was to first use the keywords “3 million illegal votes” find as many news sources that defended the claim of massive voter fraud, specifically in the range of 3-5 million illegal votes. I then read the articles to see what evidence they provide, and then access that evidence and read it. I repeated this process until I arrive to the primary source, or I cannot personally access the information referenced. If the last information I am able to access is the opinion of an individual, then the whole argument is an appeal to authority.

I easily found fifteen articles that clearly supported the claim than 3 million people voted illegally, but also noticed upon reading the articles that there were only 4 pieces of evidence that was cited in all of them. The most popular evidence was a tweet from Gregg Phillips that claimed his organization analyzed 180 million registered voters and found 3 million were illegally registered. Phillips has said he won’t release the raw data to the media, which establishes the appeal to authority already.

Articles citing Gregg Phillips, or “True the Vote,” an organization for which Phillips is on the board of directors.

Only 3 articles cited different evidence. Crooks and Liars cited an interview with Steve King (R-IA) where he explained how he did personal “extrapolation calculations” on 2 Virginia counties and concluded that 2.4 million illegal votes were cast. Without his calculations, we have yet another appeal to authority, this time that King is capable of designing proper calculations. The only 2 articles that didn’t commit an appeal to authority, on face, were Investors Business Daily that referenced and Article from Electoral Studies Journal, and Red State that referenced the same journal plus a 2012 Pew Center study of the inaccuracies in the voter registration system.

Both of these pieces of evidence have been criticized as either non sequiturs to the claim of voter fraud, or poorly designed studies, but that doesn’t make them appeals to authority. What makes this an appeal to authority is that the studies in question were published prior to the election, so they cannot have studied actual voter fraud for the most recent election. Even if he President bypassed the overwhelming amount of sources that relied on appeals to authority, took the time to read these 2 particular studies, as well as the criticism written by experts against the studies, he is still asking us to trust his ability to predict actual voter fraud based on, at best, probabilistic evidence.

Notice how nearly every article relies on one unverified source, explore the map below

The appeal to authority is unavoidable with the claim that 3-5 million people voted illegally; either Gregg Phillips, Steve King, or Donald Trump are at the root of of any such claim that has been made public. But, it is important to remember that identifying a fallacy is not synonymous with disproving a claim, that requires counterfactual evidence. To combat the rise of appeals to authority, it requires mutually agreed upon sources of information prior to an investigation, and a commitment to accept the results. In other words, an agreed upon process.

Perhaps massive voter fraud did occur, on a scale never seen before. Such a scandal would throw the results of hundreds of elections that happened on November 8th into question, and shake the very foundation of our democracy. But the only thing that can conclusively verify voter fraud would be a robust investigation by an organization trusted by both sides of the political aisle, if there is such an organization.