Thursday, September 27, 2012

Faulty Reasoning: Appeal to Popularity

Politicians frequently point out that something they support is popular. This is natural, since what becomes law in a democracy is significantly determined by what is popular.

But we shouldn't make the mistake of reasoning that, because something is popular, it is therefore correct or good. Lots of things -- slavery, anti-Semitism, etc. -- have been popular without being good.

The majority isn't necessarily always correct. To think that the majority must be correct is an example of flawed reasoning. In particular, it's a fallacy known as argumentum ad populum ("appeal to the people", or "appeal to the masses").

So, the next time a politician says "Americans want" something-or-other, remind yourself that sometimes the majority wants the wrong thing. The fact that something is popular doesn't mean it is morally or politically right.

"Three years ago, a bipartisan, commonsense bill would have required background checks for virtually everyone who buys a gun. Keep in mind, this policy was supported by some 90% of the American people. It was supported by a majority of NRA households. But the gun lobby mobilized against it. And the Senate blocked it."
-- President Barack Obama, January 1, 2016, during the president's weekly address.

Comment: Obama is arguing for this legislation on the basis that it is bipartisan, common-sense, and has popular support.

So, then, in light of the deal’s terrible defects, in light of the specific concerns of Jews, and in light of the nearly universal opposition to the deal among Israeli Jews, why do half of America’s Jews support it? One answer, given by many American Jewish supporters of the deal, is that they back the deal precisely because they do care about Israel. Now, when American Jews with a record of strong support of Israel say this, I believe them. But, I have two questions for these Jews: First, if the deal is good for Israel, why does only 1 in 10 Israelis support it? And how can Jews living in Los Angeles or New York tell 90 percent of Israelis that they know better than Israeli Jews what’s good for Israel? Isn’t that’s what we Jews call chutzpah?
-- Pundit Dennis Prager, August 26, 2015. His remarks concerned Iran – which has repeatedly threatened the Jewish state of Israel – and the deal in the works to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

Comment: This flawed reasoning, an argument ad populum. Just because a majority holds a certain view, how does that prove that the view is correct? Is the majority always right, and the minority always wrong?


Examples from 2012.

(The list above is not intended to be a comprehensive record of all relevant examples.)

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