Appeal to Popularity

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The Appeal to Popularity has the following form:

 

Premise 1: Most people approve of X.

Conclusion: Therefore, X is true.

 

In this fallacy, a claim is accepted as true simply because most people are favorably inclined towards it. More formally, the claim that most people have favorable emotions associated with the claim is substituted for evidence. A person falls for this fallacy if they accept a claim simply because most other people approve of it.

It is fallacious to accept the approval of the majority as evidence. For example, suppose that a skilled speaker managed to get most people to absolutely love the claim that 1+1=3. It would still not be rational to accept this claim simply because most people approved of it. Approval is no substitute for a mathematical proof. At one time people approved of claims such as “humans cannot survive at speeds greater than 25 miles per hour”, and “the sun revolves around the earth” but these claims are not true.

This reasoning is common and can an effective persuasive device. Since people often conform to the views of the majority, convincing a person that the majority approves of a claim can be an effective way to get them to accept it. Advertisers often use this tactic when they attempt to sell products by claiming everyone uses and loves their products. In such cases they hope that people will accept the (alleged) approval of others as a good reason to buy the product.

This fallacy is like Appeal to Belief and Appeal to Common Practice. However, in the case of an Appeal to Popularity the appeal is to the assertion that most people approve of a claim. In the case of an Appeal to Belief, the appeal is to the assertion that most people believe a claim. In the case of an Appeal to Common Practice, the appeal is to the fact that many people take the action in question.

This fallacy is related to the Appeal to Emotion fallacy, as discussed in the entry for that fallacy. Some authors consider Appeal to Belief and Appeal to Popularity to be variants of the same fallacy or even the same fallacy. There is nothing wrong with this view and, as mentioned above, there is no bureau of fallacy naming to decide which is correct.

There are philosophical theories in which majority approval makes something true. One example is cultural ethical relativism. On this view, what is right is determined by the values of the culture and this can be taken as majority approval of the values. If such a theory is correct, then this reasoning would not be fallacy in that context.

While it might seem that the political view of majority rule would be an example of this fallacy, this is not the case. Majority rule does not entail that claim are true because the majority votes for them. Rather it is the view that political legitimacy arises from the approval of the citizens. So, a candidate getting the majority of the votes would be the legitimate winner but this does not entail that the approval of the voters proves that the politician’s claims are true.

 

Defense: The main defense against this fallacy is to keep in mind the distinction between a claim being true and being approved of, even if most people do approve of it.

 

Example #1:

My fellow Americans…there has been some talk that the government is overstepping its bounds by allowing police to enter people’s homes without the warrants traditionally required by the Constitution or even knocking and identifying themselves as police. However, these are dangerous times and dangerous times require appropriate actions. I have in my office thousands of letters from people who let me know, in no uncertain terms, that they heartily endorse the war against crime in these United States. Because of this overwhelming approval, it is evident that the police are doing the right thing.

 

Example #2:

I read the other day that most people really like the new gun control laws. I was sort of suspicious of them, but I guess if most people like them, then they must be okay.

 

Example #3:

Jill and Jane have some concerns that the rules their sorority follows are racist. Since Jill is a decent person, she brings her concerns up in the next meeting. The president of the sorority assures her that there is nothing wrong with the rules, since most of the sisters like them. Jane accepts this ruling, but Jill decides to leave the sorority.

Originally appeared on A Philosopher’s Blog Read More

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