It’s truly remarkable how many different tactics people will use to persuade us of their point of view. One of the most common is the ‘appeal to popularity’ in which we are encouraged to agree simply because a significant number of other people do. It’s an appeal to herd mentality in which reason is seen as less important than populism. This is the argument that would have us believe the Nazis were correct simply because so many people attended the Nuremberg Rally.
Of course that doesn’t mean that popular opinion is always wrong – far from it. But when popular opinion is reasonable it is because, coincidentally it matches the available evidence, not merely because it is popular.
Columbus disagreed with the majority view
An interesting aspect of this argument is that it relies solely upon a statistical analysis, an opinion poll if you will, and such statistical perspectives are notoriously misleading. Different populations give different results. Different cultural groups often have predictable opinions and different views are prevalent at different periods in history.
Unless we believe that modern society is infallible we need to be open to the possibility that popular opinion today may be wrong just as it was when most people believed that:
The earth is flat;
The earth is the centre of the universe;
Iron ships can never float;
Erupting volcanoes, failing harvests, infertility and disabilities are the judgements of the Gods.
And then there is the problem of sampling. For example I know a number of people who proudly insist that most people in the world believe in a God or Gods. They’re not usually quite so keen to report that most people the world over do not believe in their particular deity of choice. Nor do they generally like to acknowledge that (with the curious exception of the United States), the more advanced the nation the smaller the percentage of believers.
You see the question you ask about statistics of any kind can easily be used to manipulate the results to make whatever case you like. But that really just makes the very idea of the ‘appeal to popularity’ both meaningless and obsolete.
So what if most people in rural Kenya believe that unprotected sex with a virgin will cure AIDS? Most people who have studied the disease understand how tragic and dangerous such a very popular misconception really is. It results in the widespread rape of young girls who often go on to develop AIDS themselves as a direct consequence. So which statistic matters most?
The reality is that every major advancement in human understanding involved an individual or minority group disagreeing with the majority. This is how we develop as a society.
Will you follow the herd or will you think for yourself?
If the ‘appeal to popularity’ argument had held sway Eddison would never have developed electric lighting, Darwin would never have developed his theory of evolution and Columbus wouldn’t have rediscovered the Americas several centuries after Leif Erikson’s forgotten expedition to ‘Vineland’ (modern Newfoundland).
Dismissing the minority view simply because it is the minority view stymies growth and prevents improvement. It’s far better to judge an idea on its merits than worry about the numbers of supporters it may have. Every good idea was outside the mainstream once upon a time.
Instead of counting heads, ask what the evidence is for new ideas and beliefs. Who cares what the herd thinks? Unless, of course, you’re a sheep.
About the ‘Fallacies’ series
The ‘Fallacies’ project was built up from a series of instalments that first appeared online during the summer of 2012. It is republished as part of a larger set of changes intended to rationalise the contents of several different blogs into just 2. The other remaining blog focuses mainly upon social care and mental health related issues. It can be found at http://www.TheCareGuy.com
Filed under: Fallacies, History, Religion | Tagged: critical thinking, fallacies, fallacy, popularity, scepticism, skepticism | Leave a comment »