One of the most famous, and commonly encountered logical fallacies is the appeal to popularity, or bandwagon. This is used when trying to argue for the truth of a claim (e.g. Jesus was the son of a god because over a billion people think so, or for balance, you shouldn’t believe the claims of Christians because British people are leaving Christianity in droves). It’s used casually by almost everyone because, try as hard as they might to detach themselves from this, people generally feel more comfortable when their beliefs conform to societal norms. Thus, it is extremely common for proponents of an argument to state how widely their views are held: it helps disperse any uncomfortable feelings people might have about going out on a limb.

Appeals to popularity are also used, not simply to justify the truth of a claim, but to argue for the legality of something in a democracy: we might call this the “democratic appeal to popularity”. The argument goes something like this: “x should be the law because a majority of people think it should”. The democratic appeal to popularity, unlike the simple appeal,  seems to be a generally persuasive form of argument, because it is about legality not truth, and the whole point of democracy is that the wishes of the people should be reflected in the legislature. The argument is a bounded one in practice, because of various rights and privileges which, for example, might be designed to protect minorities.

I wish here to point out a mis-use or abuse of this democratic appeal to popularity, which I call the generalized democratic appeal to popularity. Here are two recent examples. Recently Tesco supermarkets started selling farm produce under fictitious farm brands in an effort to appeal to customers’ sense of local home-grown goodness.  This sparked some controversy because customers don’t like being hoodwinked, and real farmers don’t like the dishonest competition: for example some of the brands sell imported produce under British sounding names. The marketing can be seen as an attempt to deceive. One of Tescos’ responses to this has been that the brands are very popular:

 ‘With over two-thirds of our customers having bought products in the range, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, as they have recognised the great quality and outstanding value they offer.’

Is this a persuasive democratic argument for retaining the fake brands? It might superficially seem that way, because if people buy it, aren’t they voting with their wallets? Well, maybe not. It is possible to object to the brand name but to have no problem with the quality and value of the produce. Tesco’s defensive argument is based on numbers of people buying the produce and their view of quality and value, but the objection is not about the produce quality and value but the morality of the name. Hence this generalized appeal to popularity ends up being a different kind of logical fallacy, in this case a strawman. Put simply, Tesco are responding to a different complaint (e.g. that the produce is poor quality or value) rather than the actual complaint (the name is misleading). They will no doubt use this fallacious argument to justify continuing to mislead the public.

The fallacious generalized appeal to popularity is also used in defense of faith schools. There are a whole raft of objections to faith schools, including that they can legally teach a more narrow curriculum in RE and sex and relationships education, they can discriminate legally in admissions and in employment on grounds of belief, and that by doing so they end up segregating children on the grounds of belief and socioeconomic class (see also here).

Once again, a common response to this complaint by proponents of faith schools is that faith schools are overwhelmingly popular.  Again, aren’t people voting with their feet, and isn’t this a reason for retaining faith schools? Once again, this democratic appeal to popularity is overgeneralizing the complaint (about the above elements of faith schools, which are overwhelmingly unpopular) to other elements of a school which might affect overall parental choice. Again, it’s a strawman.

And I speak as someone who both objects to Tesco fake farm brands (because I dislike dishonesty) and faith schools (because of the faith element), but who also both buys the fake farm brands and sent my kids to a faith school. And I dislike my actions being used to justify the things I object to.

Ultimately, I could decide to boycott the produce and the school. But reality is not that simple. It’s not easy for me to buy other vegetables because I would have to spend more  time and money to go somewhere else. And to have sent my kids to another school would have meant sending them to a non-local school, probably one with lower academic attainment, and one where they would not be able to develop friendships with local children. I don’t see why I should have to do all that just because other people use fallacious arguments. It’s they that should be changing, not me.

So, next time someone uses the overall popularity of something to justify a particular feature of that something, do point out that they are using a fallacious response (a strawman). And get them to respond to the actual complaint instead.