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Argumentum Ad Populum

A proposition is argued to be true because it is widely held to be true or is held to be true by some important segment of the population. “Because many or most people believe A, A must be true.” We’ll call this consensus gentium the “Appeal to Popularity”. 2) Additionally, the argumentum ad populum has been used more literally as “appeal to the people” or “appeal to the gallery”. In this version, it refers to a direct emotional and rhetorical appeal to the people standing in judgment. For example, when a politician turns to the crowd, looks them in the eye, and begins, “I implore you…”, or, “I know that we all agree that…”, take note. Appeals of this sort may resort to the argument from pity or to the audience’s presumed shared values. Strictly speaking, appealing to “the people” need not be fallacious, but only when the logic (or lack of logic) of the appeal is problematic.

  1. "I think we can all agree that the overwhelming majority of the leadership of the American movement is composed of decent, honest, dedicated people who have made a great contribution involving great personal sacrifice, helping to build a decent American labor movement... We happen to believe that leadership in the American movement is a sacred trust. We happen to believe that this is no place for people who want to use the labor movement to make a fast buck." (Douglas N. Walton, Informal Logic, p. 91.)
  2. A majority of Americans, scientists in particular, now believe that stem cell research is an acceptable and necessary means for the discovery of new therapeutic alternatives. They agree that to reject its use demonstrates an utter lack of compassion for those with currently incurable degenerative diseases. In our time, medieval moral and metaphysical hang-ups should be discarded as the relics of the past that they are. So, stem cell research is morally permissible and should be legalized, indeed generously funded.
  3. The Secret is a New York Times bestseller many times over. Copies are flying off the shelves. Stores all over town are out of stock, trying to meet the demands of readers. Clearly, Rhonda Byrne is on to something. She must be right that the universe really does bend to our needs and desires if only we expect the best and banish negative thoughts from our minds.
  4. "This move [the Appeal to Popularity] is so outrageous, when baldly stated, that popularity rarely occurs in this blatant formulation. You often have to dig below the surface to find it. For example, M expresses the belief that drugs are harmful and that people shouldn't rely on them. N counters, 'Oh, come off it! Nobody believes that nowadays!' N has not actually said that because nobody believes it, it is false; but that is the clear implication. Or M says that women are inferior to men. N responds, 'Surely you must be joking; that crazy idea went out with the '60s! Where have you been hibernating?' Again, N stops short of the explict statement of the inference that because no one believes it, the view is false. The best way to counter such moves is to ask, point-blank, 'Hold on, are you saying that because everyone (or no one) believes it, therefore it is true (or false)?'" (Johnson & Blair, Logical Self-Defense, 1983, p. 125.)
Identify the proposition and point out that it may be true or false regardless of what people believe. Indeed, constructivist theories notwithstanding, if truth is objective, then it is independent of subjective opinion by definition. Point out that the majority of people have often been wrong in the past about truths that we now consider undeniable. Examples are legion, including false beliefs from the past about the flatness of the earth or its orbit around the sun. Moreover, the fact that majority opinion about important and contentious ideas changes — from generation to generation, culture to culture — indicates that the truth of a proposition cannot depend on popular opinion. To which majority should we defer?

The Argumentum ad Judicium

There is a special case of the appeal to popularity — or better, the appeal to consensus — that is not so easily dismissed as fallacious. For example, when there is virtually "universal" agreement about an aspect of human experience, these aspects can constitute premises of an argument. For example, the universal experience of ownership of consciousness may serve as a premise in an argument for the immateriality of the mind. In such cases, the premise may be rebutted, but in the meantime the premise can be taken for granted in the absence of objections.
"The argumentum ad judicium is an appeal to general or universal belief, and so is based upon the common judgments of mankind. The dictum of such an appeal is the admitted or assumed truth of what all men everywhere believe. The controversialist appeals to this maxim because he supposes it is admitted and that it contradicts some conclusion which an opponent is trying to maintain. Thus if I deny the existence of an external world, of spirit, or of an unseen world, it would be an argumentum ad judicium to show that all men have everywhere believed in their existence. This universal belief may create a presumption or make it necessary to consider the matter seriously, but it does not prove it." (Hyslop, The Elements of Logic, pp. 250-1.)
Though consensus can have weight, it is not infallible.
"Everybody said so. Far be it from me to assert that what everybody says must be true. Everybody is, often, as likely to be wrong as right. In the general experience, everybody has been wrong so often, and it has taken in most instances such a weary while to find out how wrong, that the authority is proved to be fallible. Everybody may sometimes be right; 'but that's no rule,' as the ghost of Giles Scroggins says in the ballad." (Dickens, "The Haunted Man".)

Argumentum ad Populum as "Appeal to the Gallery"

"The 'gallery' to which an appeal is made refers to the undiscriminating public, which is often easily swayed through a manipulation of their strong feelings. Another name for this fallacy might be appeal to strong or popular sentiments or appeal to the crowd. Some of the strong emotion to which appeals are often made are fear, ethnic and social superiority, greed, and shame. Positive sentiments that are often exploited are familial concerns, patriotism, national security, group loyalty, and military superiority. Popular feelings against such groups as labor unions, certain religious or political associations, homosexuals, or even radical college students have also been manipulated as means of persuasion. The arguer's choice of which sentiment to exploit is, of course, determined by the constituency of the gallery." (Damer, Attacking Faulty Reasoning, 1980, p. 89.)
"We include under this fallacy a variety of vague appeals to loyalties, fears, and hopes of the audience. Appeals to super-patriotism, sympathy for the underdog, virtue, motherhood, and progress are not uncommon in political speeches. The following example makes appeals that may be of little relevance in deciding the worthiness of the candidate to hold public office." (Byerly, Primer of Logic, 1973, p. 50.)
"The fallacy of mob appeal is an argument in which an appeal is made to emotions, especially to powerful feelings that can sway people in large crowds. Also called appeal to the masses, this fallacy invites people's unthinking acceptance of ideas which are presented in a strong, theatrical manner. Mob appeals are often said to appeal to our lowest instincts, including violence. The language of such fallacious appeals tends to be strongly biased, making use of the linguistic fallacies we have examined previously in this book. Indeed, most instances of mob appeal incorporate other fallacies, melding them together into an argument that rests primarily on appeal to an emotional, rather than a reasoned, response. In so doing, such arguments commit a fallacy of irrelevance because they fail to address the point at issue, choosing instead to steer us toward a conclusion by means prejudice rather than reason." (Engel, 1976, pp. 113-14.)
David Hume on the bandwagon effect.
"No quality of human nature is more remarkable, both in itself and in its consequences, than that propensity we have to sympathize with others, and to receive by communication their inclinations and sentiments, however different from, or even contrary to our own. This is not only conspicuous in children, who implicitly embrace every opinion propos’d to them; but also in men of the greatest judgment and understanding, who find it very difficult to follow their own reason or inclination, in opposition to that of their friends and daily companions. To this principle we ought to ascribe the great uniformity we may observe in the humours and turn of thinking of those of the same nation; and ’tis much more probable, that this resemblance arises from sympathy, than from any influence of the soil and climate, which, tho’ they continue invariably the same, are not able to preserve the character of a nation the same for a century together. A good-natur’d man finds himself in an instant of the same humour with his company; and even the proudest and most surly take a tincture from their countrymen and acquaintance. A chearful countenance infuses a sensible complacency and serenity into my mind; as an angry or sorrowful one throws a sudden dump upon me. Hatred, resentment, esteem, love, courage, mirth and melancholy; all these passions I feel more from communication than from my own natural temper and disposition. So remarkable a phaenomenon merits our attention, and must be trac’d up to its first principles." (Hume, A Treatise on Human Nature, 1739.)