Appeal to popularity

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An argumentum ad populum is an argument that, because a proposition is popularly believed to be correct, it must be correct. Such arguments are fallacious unless there is some reason to believe that opinions that are more popular are more likely to be true. Murray Rothbard writes, "The new idea, much less the new critical idea, must needs begin as a small minority opinion; therefore, the State must nip the view in the bud by ridiculing any view that defies the opinions of the mass. 'Listen only to your brothers' or 'adjust to society' thus become ideological weapons for crushing individual dissent. By such measures, the masses will never learn of the nonexistence of their Emperor's clothes."[1]

Ludwig von Mises writes, "Neither can the fact that a man is at variance with the opinions held by the majority of his contemporaries qualify him as a lunatic. Were Copernicus, Galileo and Lavoisier insane? It is the regular course of history that a man conceives new ideas, contrary to those of other people. Some of these ideas are later embodied in the system of knowledge accepted by public opinion as true. Is it permissible to apply the epithet "sane" only to boors who never had ideas of their own and to deny it to all innovators?"[2]

If the acceptable standards of thinking and behaving are deemed to be only whatever society accepts, then we are caught in a catch-22, in which individuals agree (or at least abide by) what society dictates; and society, being composed of those individuals, thinks and does as they think and do. The only way any change can occur in societal standards is when individuals, dissenting from those standards, go their own way, and form either the new mainstream or an accepted alternative school of thinking or behavior.

There is, however, some truth to the idea that it is sometimes expedient, for purposes of achieving short-term, selfish goals, for an individual to conform to society, including society's opinions. To a certain extent, there can be some safety in numbers; for example, if one is in a crowd of 1 million people illegally protesting against the government, one may be safer from arrest than if one were in a crowd of 100 people. The rightness or wrongness of the protestors' opinions may be less relevant to their risk of arrest than their numbers, which can have a significant impact on how practicable it would be to arrest them all. Likewise, as long as the masses tend to view popularity as prima facie evidence of goodness, and unpopularity as prima facie evidence of badness, then it can be expedient for a person seeking to avoid the consequences of being regarded as bad to avoid espousing unpopular opinions.