Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Appeal to Popularity

Appeal to popularity is a logical fallacy that involves essentially taking a vote to decide the nature of reality. Let's say I decide that the world is flat and we put it up to a vote. 90% of those polled think it is round and 10% think it is flat. Since this "vote" turned out to be in line with the evidence it is easy to assume that the logic is correct. The fallacy is that what people believe is completely irrelevant to the truth. If someone had put the same question to a vote 3000 years ago and the percentages were reversed does that mean the world was actually flat back then? Of course not. Granted this is an absurd example but I offer it only to demonstrate the illogic of the reasoning. In the Republican debates that question was asked about which candidates accepted the theory of evolution. Only about half of the candidates raised their hands. Many interpret this "vote" as evidence that Intelligent Design is just as valid a scientific theory as Evolution. Preposterous.
I've also noticed that people tend to interpret the proportion of media coverage on an event or opinions as some kind of marker as to the validity of that opinion or idea. Suppose a TV channel decided to air a documentary on the JFK assassination and they gave 95% of the coverage in support of the various conspiracy theories and then gave the token skeptical opinion only 5% of the air time. This does not mean that their is any validity to the conspiracy theory at all. It just means that that's what the station choose to give the air time.
I have a friend who gets all of his news from conservative talk radio and foxnews.com. He is always forwarding me the latest report that global warming is a hoax. Since all of the reports that he reads dismiss global warming he tends to think that the whole thing is a hoax. The evidence, ALL of the evidence should be weighted and analyzed to see what the real effects are.
Another flaw in this type of logic is to assume that every person's opinion is equally valid. Not so. If Sean Hannity, Pat Robertson and Steven Hawking have a vote on whether the universe is 8000 years old or not, should we give each of them an equal vote? Of course not.
In my "quest for truth" I have been surprised at what I thought I knew. Once I came to realize the logical hopscotch I was having to play in order to justify my opinions I became very aware of just how ignorant I actually was. In many ways I don't think I'm much closer to the truth, however I am more confident that at least my opinions and the facts that I accept are based on sound evidence.

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