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Philosophy 203: Scientific Reasoning
Appeal to the People

Abstract: The argument based upon what most or all people think or believe  is characterized and shown to be sometimes persuasive but normally fallacious.

  1. Argumentum ad Populum (popular appeal or appeal to the majority): The fallacy of attempting to win popular assent to a conclusion by arousing the feeling and enthusiasms of the multitude.  There are several variations of this fallacy, but we will emphasize two forms.

    1. "Snob Appeal":  the fallacy of attempting to prove a conclusion by appealing to what an elite or a select few (but not necessarily an authority) in a society thinks or believes.

      (There are many non-fallacious appeals in style, fashion, and politics--since in these areas the appeal is not irrelevant.)

      Person L says statement p or argument A.
      Person L is in the elite.
      Statement p is true or argument A is good.

    2. "Bandwagon": the fallacy of attempting to prove a conclusion on the grounds that all or most people think or believe it is true.

      Most, many, or all persons believe statement p is true.
      Statement p is true.


  2. Many advertising slogans are based on this fallacy:  Strictly speaking one statement, considered by itself, cannot be a fallacy because it's not an argument.  Nevertheless, the import seems to be in some cases an implicit argument with conversational implicature.  I.e., the statement can easily be reconstructed from context into an implicit argument.

    "Coffee is the think drink." (withdrawn by FDA)
    "Quick Kick is the National League thirst quencher."
    "Four Roses Whiskey is for men of distinction."
    "Sony. Ask anyone.."

    1. Occasionally, it is difficult to make a distinction between the ad verecundiam (appeal to authority) and the ad populum   (appeal to the elite) fallacies.

    2. The basis of the ad populum appeal is the assumption that large numbers of persons are more likely to be right than you are likely to be right.   Also, in light of of peer pressure, many persons feel it's better to be normal than to go against the crowd.  Moreover, our desire to be approved by others often results in our joining the "bandwagon" of the probable winning side in a political contest.

  3. The main problem with this fallacy is the fact that many people agree on something does not imply that what they agree on  is true; nevertheless, the fact that many people agree, can be relevant evidence for the truth in some instances.  The trick is to understand the nature of the relevance of the premisses to the conclusion.

  4. Examples of the ad populum:

    • "Man could alleviate his misery by marriage.  This close companionship enhances the joys of one and mitigated the sorrow of the other, and anyone knew God always provided for married people." Lee Emily Pearson, Elizabethans at Home, (Stanford Univ. Pr.), 289.

    • "Shell was charged with misleading advertising in its Platformate advertisements.  A Shell spokesman said: 'The same comment could be made about most good advertising of most products.'"  S.S. Baker, The Permissible Lie (ASIN), 39.

    • "To his dying day, Governor Marvin Mandel will never understand what was wrong in accepting more that $350,000 worth of gifts from wealthy friends who happened to engage in business ventures that benefited from his gubernatorial influence.  The governor has lots of company ...  And to a man they have cried in bewilderment that "everybody does it,' that politics survives on back scratching."  New York Times, Aug. 5, 1977, 1-A.

    • "But officer, I don't deserve a ticket;  everyone goes this speed.  If I went any slower, I wouldn't be going with the stream of traffic."


    • It is well recognized by most persons that the present technological revolution has affected the ethical basis of the nation's institution of education.  Since this belief is so widely held, there can be little doubt of its accuracy.

    • St. Augustine wrote, "For with the exception of a few in whom nature is excessively depraved, the whole human race confesses God to be author of the world."  Note, as well, the ad hominem implications of this argument.


  5. Non-fallacious examples of the ad populum:  the appeal is not irrelevant when what most persons believe or what the select few believe does in fact determine what is true.  Conventional truth such as the definitions of words,  standard use of symbols, styles, or political elections are typical examples where the appeal to the majority , the experts, or  the people-in-the-know would be relevant and so would not be fallacious.  

    1. If an elite group of people are in a position to know of what they speak, their authority is relevant and should not automatically be discounted.  E.g., to remark that most physicians believe that a high fat diet is unhealthy, so that it follows that persons who have a high fat diet should change their eating habits, is to make a legitimate appeal.

    2. The number of persons who believe a claim can be probable evidence for the truth of the conclusion.  But without further information about the case in point, the number of persons cannot be not directly related to the truth of the claim.

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