September 11, 2016 by David Sutton
Ad Populum Fallacy: The Allure Of Popularity And Bandwagon Consensus
The ad populum fallacy, known also as argumentum ad populum, or simply the bandwagon fallacy, is when one appeals to the popularity of a belief as the very reason to believe it.
When considering this fallacy in popular culture, the first person who comes to mind is Fox News host Bill O’Reilly. On more than one occasion, O’Reilly has cited his show’s ratings in an effete attempt to validate this viewpoint. While not in the purist sense, this is an example of the ad populum fallacy. In this case, it’s not a specific belief being confirmed, but rather O’Reilly is invoking his show’s viewership as proof he is right and the person he is debating is wrong, even when O’Reilly finds himself unable to win said debate on the merit of facts and logic. Of course, O’Reilly doesn’t stop to think if his audience is committing the blind loyalty fallacy.
Here’s an example of Fox News ratings being portrayed as validation.
There’s no question, as O’Reilly puts it, that “Fox News now is the most powerful voice in the news media.” And he later added, “Fox News is designed to be provocative, truthful, and look out for the regular folks, that’s why our ratings are so dominant.” Notice how that part didn’t require a shred of proof? Sure, the ratings are dominant, but O’Reilly did not offer evidence as to why. Instead he posited an opinion, but he did so with chutzpah.
The validity of a claim is not enhanced by the number of people who believe it. A belief does not represent the truth just because many people happen to agree. In fact, it is possible for most people to be wrong. At one time, everyone knew the sun revolved around the Earth, and everyone was sure the Earth was flat.
The reason this fallacy is so pervasive is because we human beings crave a sense of belonging. As much as we might want to rebel, we find the allure of conformity hard to resist. Acquiescence to a popular notion brings us calm, and because of that, we believe it offers us security and safety.
This brings us back to Bill O’Reilly. As the host of the most watched news network program, O’Reilly has a platform that he is able to use to play to the insecurities of his viewers, seducing them to accept his opinions as fact. In return, O’Reilly is able to invoke his viewership as validation of his opinion, creating a bandwagon consensus.
Examples of ad populum fallacy include:
- Everyone is doing it, so there must be something to it.
- A majority of voters can’t be wrong.
- Millions of people watch my show, so I must be right.
- A majority of people disagree with this legislation, therefore it is a bad idea.
- A jury rendered a guilty verdict, the defendant is therefore guilty.
I realize that last one is controversial, but I put it there to make a point. Even in a court of law, the truth is not always with the majority. We know people have been wrongly convicted. So if there is one takeaway, it is this. — We should be careful before we consider jumping on the bandwagon, because dissent is an acceptable alternative.