I’m going to keep this one relatively short today, as I have my sister’s wedding rehearsal in an hour and am also trying to climb out of a bureaucratic black hole (job, not wedding related).
So! Argumentum ad populum has to be one of my favorite fallacies, and by favorite, I mean “one most likely to make me start talking to my television.” The bandwagon appeal states that because X is popular, X is a good idea. Sit-com mothers have been striking this fallacy down with a hammer since the beginning of time: “If EVERYONE jumped off a bridge…”
But the most ubiquitous version of this fallacy here in the U.S. is when talking heads go on the tee vee and begin blathering on and on about “what the American people want.” (Do other countries have this? I am curious.) I will let Jon Stewart demonstrate:
|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart||Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c|
If you can’t see the video, it’s basically just clip after clip of pundits using “The American People” as the sock puppet for whatever initiative they happen to be shilling at that moment. Sometimes, said pundit is waving around a poll that demonstrates his point. Sometimes we get two pundits using poll data to make diametrically opposite points. You get the idea. The problem with argumentum ad populum gets to the heart of one of the most uncomfortable aspects of democracy: just because an idea is popular doesn’t mean that idea is objectively better or objectively right. The People are sometimes flat out wrong, or mistaken, or confused, or being led down the primrose path. The People aren’t always trustworthy. This is why the most significant Civil Rights injustices in the history of the United States were corrected via executive decree (The Emancipation Proclamation) or the courts (Brown v. Board of Education, Roe v. Wade).
What’s more, sometimes the data we use to determine What the American People Want is flawed. Time for a West Wing digression. I couldn’t find a clip for this one, but here’s the set-up: the President and his advisers have been listening all day to a pollster who claims that 80% of the American People support a constitutional amendment banning flag burning, an amendment that they believe is stupid but that the pollster claims could cinch re-election. Later on, at a fund-raiser, rival pollster Joey Lucas (played by the fabulous Marlee Matlin) explains that while that statistic is technically true, further polling reveals that most of those who said they would support such an amendment didn’t actually care about it very much, and only a tiny fraction said it would swing their vote.
The media narrative these days continues to be that most Americans hate or are ambivalent toward the health care reform bill passed this year, and various groups have been able to leverage those statistics to support their agendas, but popular opinion is rarely a homogeneous or uncomplicated thing. It is possible for vast groups of people to oppose or support something for a multitude of reasons.
By the way, “The American People” should totally be a drinking game. It might actually make television news watchable.