February 24, 2015

Popularity and the Truth of a Belief

Logic probe
Logic probe (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In a recent post about belief, I mentioned that reality is not a popularity contest in the sense that a false belief does not somehow become less false because large numbers of people hold it. This is something with which I expect most atheists will be very familiar. If you are an atheist living in a country with a vast religious majority, the odds are good that you have been on the receiving end of this argumentum ad populum (appeal to the people) many times. "Of course Christianity is true! Just look how at how many Christians there are."

The notion that "this many people can't be wrong" is quite bizarre. History is replete with examples of a great many people being wrong about many important things for long periods of time. Most of us have little difficulty recognizing that denying women the vote was wrong and that the rationale used to do it was serious flawed. Most of us recognize that sexism, racism, anti-LGBT bigotry have led countless people to do awful things, but few of us hesitate to discard the justifications they offered as false. Almost everyone living today can spot many of the problems with slavery, and yet, there was a long period of time where this was a common practice justified with several false beliefs. The vast majority of people used to hold false beliefs about the nature of illness and how it should be treated. This did not make their beliefs any less false. You get the idea.

Some religious believers mix this fallacious argument from popularity up with scientific consensus and try to argue that our reliance on expertise and scientific consensus is no different. This fails to recognize how science works and what scientific consensus entails. The methods used by science are vastly different from that of shared popular belief. This amounts to the hollow cry of "but you do it too" as if that was helpful to one's argument even if it was somehow accurate. But maybe that particular fallacy is best saved for another post.

When I hear the argument from popularity today, I have to exert some self-control to stop myself from exclaiming, "Are you serious?" This exercise of self-control is not always successful. I sometimes have a hard time remembering that the speaker may indeed be as ignorant as these words suggest. I tend to give people more credit than that. But then I read something like the results of a recent Pew survey showing that 73% of adults in the United States believe that someone named Jesus was born to a virgin, and this jolts me back to reality. People can be ignorant, and there are many of them out there who share false beliefs.

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