Appeal To Popularity

"They voted for the impossible, and the disastrous possible happened instead"
— History lesson (talking about us), Robert A. Heinlein, Starship Troopers

Appeal To Popularity:

Also called

The appeal to popularity is built around the belief that something is true (or false) because a lot of people believe it is. This is fallacious because it confuses whether an idea is justified with whether it is accepted. Demonstrating widespread support for something only proves it is popular, not that it is true.

Alice: Don't you know smoking's bad for you, Bob?
Bob: Bah, it's just propaganda. If it were really bad for you, why would millions of people do it, hm?

This is the standard version; the belief that a large group is incapable of being incorrect. The fallacy can also be inverted, however, with popularity being taken as a sign something is wrong

Bob: Alice, what's that terrible noise coming out of your speakers? I thought you liked The Band.
Alice: Geez, get with the times, The Band suck since they sold out and went mainstream.

The latter logic underlies It's Popular, Now It Sucks, and is often used with regard to "edgy" media.


Live-Action TV
  • On Have I Got News for You, Louise Bagshaw argued against the Alternative Vote method based on the fact that very few countries use it. This prompted Ian Hislop to point out that much of the world is starving, which is a pretty strong argument against eating.
  • The BBC Panel Game QI uses this extensively. Points are awarded for "quite interesting" answers, and are taken away for boring ones. If the answer given to a question is one that "everybody knows" and is wrong, a klaxon sounds and ten points are taken away. Both the examples of lemmings and piranhas (see REAL LIFE below) have been used. Sometimes, however, the obvious answer is the real answer, which sometimes leads to the panel members phrasing their answers very carefully in case the question is a double bluff.
  • On The Debaters, Rebecca Kohler's argument against the Canadian flag: there are more Google results for "why are some farts hot?" than for "why the Canada flag is cool."
Real Life
  • Lots of "common knowledge" surrounding various animals survives because of the appeal to popularity.
    • Lemmings are a prime example, as well as an Appeal to Authority. If everyone, including random authorities, say that lemmings commit mass suicide.... The truth: Stoats. (Not to mention that a famous lemmings-jumping-off-a-cliff video, as filmed by Disney, had people off-camera herding the lemmings over said cliff. This isn't as horrific as it sounds, because lemmings fall slowly enough to be unharmed by the fall, but still dodgy.)
    • The idea that the adult sizes of fish and reptiles are determined by tank size falls into this.
    • As does the idea that birds won't take back hatchlings that smell like humans (fun fact: very few birds actually have a sense of smell acute enough to notice if their baby smells strange).
    • This is also why people think piranhas are solely carnivorous. In fact, they're omnivores, and eat primarily insects, seeds, and other fish.

Western Animation

Looks like this fallacy but is not:

  • If the criteria being measured is popularity, or something that can be determined by popular vote. For instance, in a list of "best-selling books", the ranking is determined solely by how many copies of each book were sold, and whether it's a good book or not doesn't enter into it. However, claiming that a bestseller is necessarily good is this fallacy.
  • If the investigated subject isn't an objectively measurable thing, but a social concept, that is indeed determined by popularity. For example:
    • "Gold is valuable because many people pay for it."
    • ""Trope" is a word meaning "storytelling device", because that's how most people use it."
    • "Most people would agree that is improper to talk in the cinema during a movie, so don't do it."
These concepts, like economical value, linguistic meaning, or etiquette, are things that only exist because a large number of us believe that they exist. If everyone would believe that gold is worthless, its value would disappear (this happens at the beginning of the novel Galapagos).

Alternative Title(s):

Appeal To Majority