12 Days of Scepticism: Day 3 – Argumentum Ad Populum

It’s the third day of Christmas and my daughter gave to me: an appeal from popularity. She said that she wanted to go to the park wearing clothes that showed her belly off. She’s five by the way; I think I may have let her watch too many Rihanna videos. Anyway, I said no, which was obviously unfair and horrible and mean as she carefully explained to me. Then she delivered the killer blow against which no one could possibly defend: but all my friends do it.

This is probably an argument that every single child uses at some point and is an appeal to popularity also known as the argumentum ad populum. The general gist is that if everyone else is doing something because they think it’s a good idea then, naturally, it is a good idea. It’s a bit like ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’, though personally I would argue that you simply need to beat harder.

We’ve all been susceptible to this at some point. Perhaps you read Fifty Shades of Grey or voted for George W Bush or inexplicably believed that England might do well at sport. You got carried away with the masses despite the mountain of evidence telling you that you’ve lost your mind. Let’s make it our new year’s resolution to, en masse, never do it again.

When you are talking about something objective that can be clearly defined, like whether or not the earth is round, it doesn’t matter if 99.9% of people believe that it is flat because it just isn’t. But how about with something a little more amorphous like language? There are ‘correct’ dictionary definitions and spellings of there, their and they’re; but how many people have to use them incorrectly before you could say that their meaning has actually changed? In this case, popularity might one day trump what is ‘correct’. With such common words I think these are unlikely to change any time soon but it isn’t impossible.

For example, for a long, long time most people misused the word nauseous. They used it to mean that they feel sick as in, “I had too much eggnog last night and now I feel nauseous;” but this wasn’t correct, they should have used the word nauseated. The incorrect usage was so ingrained and prevalent, however, that it was decided to change the definition of nauseous to bring it in line with common usage.

Personally I like little changes like this where languages evolve; they shouldn’t be stuck in stone. Equally, though, we shouldn’t use ’50 million Justin Bieber fans can’t be wrong’ as a justification for our poor life decisions.

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2 thoughts on “12 Days of Scepticism: Day 3 – Argumentum Ad Populum

  1. It’s very sad if there are 50 million people who think JB is actually worth anything! Seriously, I try – and have tried to bring up my children – to think instead. Never got that kind of argument from them either, so hopefully it’s worked.

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