In my continuing battle for the improvement of public discourse, each month I discuss an example of a Fallacious Argument. This month’s Fallacious Argument is perhaps one of the most frequently invoked: the appeal to the bandwagon, which leans the mighty weight of the many against the intractable few.
Anyone who has ever been a child can no doubt recall futile negotiations with one’s parents to gain new privileges or permission. The negotiations typically go something like this:
Kid: “But all the other kids get to [forbidden activity]!” (This seems perfectly reasonable to kids. After all, if the other kids get to, then it’s only fair that you get to as well.)
Parent: “So let me get this straight. If your friends decided to [a different forbidden activity likely to shame the family, violate the laws of physics, and result in personal injury or death], then you’d just go along with them? Just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t make something right.”
This scene gets played out, generation after generation, between parents and children all over the world. Parents everywhere are familiar with the bandwagon appeal – an argument in which the speaker seeks to persuade the hearer of the wisdom of a course of action because of the popular support it enjoys.
Although this argument has little power to sway parents (at least in my family), it seems to work on everyone else. Purveyors of consumer goods use this propaganda device to hawk toothpaste (“9 out of 10 dentists”) and motor vehicles (“America’s best-selling truck”). Meanwhile purveyors of political ideas hitch their plans to the bandwagon to win backing for their cause, whether a public law school for Massachusetts (“one of only 5 states without a public law school“) or support for or against health care reform (“every developed nation in the world has universal health care” from one side, “a majority of Americans oppose health care reform” from the other). The bandwagon ensures that political ideas, regardless of how worthy (or worthless) they may be, will be judged by their emotional appeal and not on the merits.
According to Robert Gula, author of the logic lover’s bible, Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows, the bandwagon takes advantage of the human imperative to follow the herd:
…it suggests that the judgment of the masses is sound: If so many people are doing it, then it must be right. Second, and more important, the bandwagon is an emotional appeal to our need for belonging. We don’t want to be left out.
Our parents, it seems, were right after all: just because an idea enjoys popular support doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a good one. It might well be, of course. But let’s not allow ourselves to be overly impressed by the size of the crowd.
This concludes this month’s installment of my Fallacious Argument series. Allow me to express my sincere hope that you’ve been enjoying it; after all, 9 out of 10 readers do.