Sunday, December 20, 2015

Argumentum ad populum

If you believe in a God, I ask you to walk through this mind game.

  • Do you identify with a particular religion?
  • Do you practice the religion of your family or did you convert from another religion (or none) when you were an adult?
  • Do you feel strongly that your religion is the one true religion and that this conclusion is supported by your holy book, objective reality, and those around you?

With all of this in mind, now imagine yourself in another place. You're visiting on vacation. As you do your touristy thing around a foreign city, you find yourself in the middle of a large crowd of people. For example, you find yourself among one of the religious gatherings below.

These are some of the approximately 2 million Muslims attending the 2008 annual Hajj ceremony at Mecca.

These are among the 100,000 Mormons attending the 2012 General Conference in Salt Lake City.

This is the addressal of Sadhwi Balika Saraswati at 'Hindu Samajotsava' organised to celebrate golden jubilee of Vishwa Hindu Parishad in Mangaluru in 2015. (I have no idea what some of that means). Approximately 100,000 people attended.

Obviously I could find similar pictures representing almost all of the world's 4,200 religions and even the tens of thousands of sub-groups of these religions. For example, there are over 30,000 Christian denominations. And many of them believe that they have the only right answer for how to get into heaven.

As you stand in this foreign city, surrounded by tens of thousands of worshiping people who don't believe in your god, who were raised in the local faith, and believe absolutely fervently that what they are practicing all around you is the one true religion, how do you react? Do you listen to what they're saying and weigh it against your own faith to consider if they're correct? I mean certainly there are thousands of people around you, so they must be right? Right?

I'm pretty sure that almost no one reading this would actually do that.

Suggesting such a thing is called the Argumentum ad populum and it means that "if many people believe it, it must be so." It's one of the reasons why so many people fall under the sway of con artists and charismatic cultists. It convinces people to go against their best interests and indulge in risky behavior. It's a factor in climate denial, anti-vaccination belief and helps spread all manner of conspiracy theories. Of course, Argumentum ad populum is a logical fallacy, which means it's full of crap.

Human beings have terrible judgement. Our senses are good, but easily mislead. Our brains are so good at detecting patterns that we do it even when there isn't a pattern. And our memories are poor, even though we think they're like a video recorder. Consequently, we often ignore objective reality in favor of what we want to be true. We misinterpret events in our lives and attribute them to non-existent causes. Individuals do this, and then carry that behavior over to groups.

In short, just because a crowd of people believe something, that doesn't mean it's true.

So remember, next time you find yourself in a crowd of believers all affirming their "faith", it doesn't mean you have to believe too. Armed with the skills of skepticism and critical thinking, you'll see right through the false argument.

And if you're part of such a faith group, don't think that your Argumentum ad populum is an actual argument in favor of your faith. You're just one group among thousands, each of which thinks they're right despite the lack of evidence.

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