Fallacy of Mass Appeal

Tyler Cowen argues that we should judge our opinions based on what others think.

If no one agrees with you, you should be quite worried. If only a small number of people agree with you, you still should be quite worried. I don’t think it’s a numbers game, but I think whatever view you end up with, it doesn’t have to be a majority point of view, that reasons have weight, not just adding up whoever agrees with you. But you still ought to say at the end of the day, look all those other people are against me, maybe I think I’m right probability 57 to 43, but on any truly controversial question among intelligent people, you should never think it’s 95 to 5 in your favor.

Andrew Sullivan apparently agrees, commenting only with the snark, “Tell that to the president.”

But, clearly, the fact that the majority of people disagree with something isn’t evidence that it’s wrong. Indeed, we have a logical fallacy named after that idea.

To take an issue near and dear to Andrew’s heart, 70 percent of those polled by Princeton Survey Research Associates last week did not support “full marriage rights” for gay and lesbian couples, a finding consistent with other polls. Does that make Andrew wrong?

Another reputable survey has just found that 92 percent of Americans believe in God, three-quarters believe in life after death, and 79 percent believe in miracles. Should atheists and skeptics repent?

Further, the views on these issues are changing. Does rightness move along with these changes?

What about things on which polling is within the margin of error? Or one poll is a major outlier? How does one live one’s life under that circumstance? Should we all sign up for Google alerts on polling data?

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. The list of examples that fit your point are legion, making me wonder what Tyler is thinking. The first one that leaps to mind is the fact that a majority of people once thought the sun revolved around the Earth.

    Indeed, by this logic there are times when my students, simply by dint of numbers, know more than I do. God help me if I graded American National Government exams by this logic.

  2. yetanotherjohn says:

    Going through time, what percentage of Romans thought Caesar was a God? What percentage of Germans thought Hitler was the answer to the countries troubles? What percentage thought the sun rotated around the earth?

    He is right that if you are alone or in limited company on a belief, you should question your facts and assumptions. This is based on the whether it is simpler for 99% of the people to have gotten ‘it’ wrong or for you to have gotten it wrong.

    As an aside, given the polling in support of the war, when Obama said he was against the war (this is before he said his position on Iraq was the same as Bush), then shouldn’t he have been worried he was wrong at the time?

  3. Michael says:

    You shouldn’t worry when nobody agrees with you, but you should worry when they have a logical reason for disagreeing with you, which is ultimately the point you, Steven Taylor and yetanotherjohn were making.

  4. Michael says:

    Another reputable survey has just found that 92 percent of Americans believe in God, three-quarters believe in life after death

    Wait, there’s a large chunk of people who believe in God, but not life after death?

  5. Tlaloc says:

    Wait, there’s a large chunk of people who believe in God, but not life after death?

    Deism is the new Black.

    Joyner-
    I think you are reading too much into this. I take Cowen’s point to simply be that everyone disagreeing is a warning sign, one that should give you pause. It’s like Occam’s Razor- not a hard law, just a guideline that usually can point you in the right direction or at least suggest a good starting point.

    A position that seriously deviates from the consensus position requires more support. It is not automatically invalid, of course. The Asch conformity experiments illustrate the danger of making consensus the only criteria for correctness.

  6. Wayne says:

    One should take into account the issue that when most say most they mean most of the people in their group. The Japanese would have said that everyone knows the Emperor was a god. In their group this was true but not so for the rest of the world.

    I question all assumptions, facts and conclusions regardless of where they would fall in a poll. There is a point where I have to make a decision but try to do so with limited bias.

    For one thing most of those poll are repeating hearsay more often than an inform decision. Even those who fall under a specific field tend to simply repeat what is taught to them. Those who study Freudian psychology tend to spout Freudian theories and supporting facts. Repeating supposedly learn lessons is understandable since it would be impossible to research all assumption yourself. However it leaves them wide open to being wrong when they take assumptions as undeniable facts.

    I was ridiculed as a kid in school when I refuse to accept the fact that “life can’t exist without the suns energy”. I couldn’t say at the time that life did exist without the use of the sun’s energy but firmly believe that it could. Now we know that it does. Take a poll today and it would still show that a large majority know “life can’t exist without the suns energy”.

    Was I and am I still wrong because I am in a small majority?

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    Speaking as someone who’s been in a very small minority on almost every conceivable issue and who’s been right a good deal of the time, I think that rather than acknowledging that the majority were right we just keep on keeping’ on and try our hardest not to say “I told you so”.

  8. Steve Plunk says:

    Sullivan’s point is tiresome since he should know politicians seldom please everyone as they are bound by compromise most of the time. Because of this there will be those who disagree on both sides of the issue.

    Beyond that I wonder on what particular issue Sullivan would feel the President is so wrong? The country is essentially split 50/50.

    Cowan’s point is something everyone should already know and practice. Self examination of one’s beliefs and convictions is something intelligent people do every day. We must also realize that on some things opinions are formed from personal experience and can vary from person to person with no one being wrong.

  9. Tlaloc says:

    I was ridiculed as a kid in school when I refuse to accept the fact that “life can’t exist without the suns energy”. I couldn’t say at the time that life did exist without the use of the sun’s energy but firmly believe that it could. Now we know that it does. Take a poll today and it would still show that a large majority know “life can’t exist without the suns energy”.

    Was I and am I still wrong because I am in a small majority?

    Chemosynthesis is pretty widely known (life that exists in hydrothermal vents, metabolizing sulpher compounds as an energy source and not relying on solar at all). Notice how that what the teachers were really saying was 90% right- “Life requires energy” is correct barring a complete upheaval of physics that would pretty literally change everything. The part they got wrong was just “the sun is the only source of energy for life.”

  10. Michael says:

    I was ridiculed as a kid in school when I refuse to accept the fact that “life can’t exist without the suns energy”. I couldn’t say at the time that life did exist without the use of the sun’s energy but firmly believe that it could. Now we know that it does. Take a poll today and it would still show that a large majority know “life can’t exist without the suns energy”.

    Was I and am I still wrong because I am in a small majority?

    Going back to my first comment, the fact that they all disagreed with you wasn’t important, because they didn’t have a logical reason for disagreement. As Tlaloc pointed out, logic only dictates that energy is required, but not necessarily solar energy.

    Now when the majority has a logical reason to disagree with you, and you don’t have a logical reason to support your belief, then you’re most likely wrong.

  11. The Florida Masochist says:

    Talking about fallacies, here’s a good one I heard long ago.

    All generalizations are false, including this one.

    Bill

  12. Wayne says:

    “The fact that they all disagreed with you wasn’t important, because they didn’t have a logical reason for disagreement.”

    They had all sort of logical reasoning and theories to back up their beliefs. I can go into some of them if you like. The end game is they “wouldn’t” consider the possibility of alternate input of energy or alternate life forms that did things a bit different than known life forms of the time.

    It is easy to say something is obvious after the fact but it wasn’t obvious to 99% of them back then.

    Chemosynthesis may have been known for a while now but I bet if you take a poll most wouldn’t know about it. Being 90% right while claiming to be 100% right is not right. Ha HA

    “Now when the majority has a logical reason to disagree with you, and you don’t have a logical reason to support your belief, then you’re most likely wrong”

    For the most part I would agree. However there have been plenty of times when my gut instinct was right when data pointed the other way. For the most part I put my faith in proper logic. Also seldom does one side not have perceived logical reasons to back their conclusion.

  13. Bithead says:

    It strikes me as amusing that the idea of objectivism hasn’t entered into this thread at all.

  14. DL says:

    “Give us Barabbas”

    Who would be dumb enough to settle for that nice Jewish Fella that walks on water, raises the dead, and talks about the need to be truthful, when everyone else and the cool sophistics think otherwise?