What Is Ad Populum Fallacy? | Definition & Examples

Ad populum fallacy refers to a claim that something is true simply because that’s what a large number of people believe. In other words, if many people believe something to be true, then it must be true.

Ad populum fallacy example
You’re at a bookstore browsing for books with a friend. Although you are an avid sci-fi reader, your friend picks up a memoir and tells you that you should read the book because it’s a bestseller.

This type of argument is often used when there is no real evidence to back up a certain claim. Ad populum fallacy (also called bandwagon fallacy, appeal to numbers, or appeal to popularity) can be found in advertisements, political speeches, and everyday discussions.

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What is ad populum fallacy?

An ad populum fallacy occurs when we use an “argumentum ad populum” (Latin for “argument to the people”), meaning that we make an appeal to what most people think, like, or believe, instead of justifying our position with evidence.

When we are trying to persuade someone about our ideas, preferences, or beliefs, it is often tempting to simply claim that the majority of the people agree with us. Words that imply that many people believe, do, or buy something (such as “the majority”, “lots”, or “most”) are typical to this fallacy.

However, this type of argument is fallacious. Even if the claim is true, popularity alone is not a sufficient reason to accept it as such. The fact that most people may be in favor of the claim is not an adequate substitute for actual evidence (for example, for centuries people believed that the earth was the center of the solar system, but this was ultimately proved to be false).

What Is Ad Populum Fallacy?

Ad populum fallacy is a logical fallacy. More specifically, it is an informal fallacy of relevance because no relevant reasons are given to support the claim. In the example above, the premise (i.e., the fact that the book is a bestseller) is not sufficient evidence to accept the conclusion (i.e., you should read it). In logic, the approval of the majority alone cannot substitute the justification for a claim.

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When is an ad populum argument legitimate?

It is important to remember that ad populum arguments are not always fallacious. When the belief of the majority is relevant and serves as acceptable evidence for what is true, an ad populum argument is perfectly legitimate.

This is the case when it comes to matters decided by a majority (e.g., the definition of words, jury verdicts, or the outcome of a political election). In such cases, the belief of the majority can be a reasonable basis for accepting the claim. For example, if a friend insists that “magnanimous” means “tall”, and you reply that “magnanimous” means “forgiving” because the majority of dictionaries say so, your argument is not fallacious.

What are different types of ad populum fallacy?

There are three main variations of the ad populum fallacy:

    Bandwagon fallacy

    Bandwagon fallacy (or bandwagon appeal) is the main form of the ad populum fallacy and occurs when someone argues that a belief or action is correct because the majority of people support it. Such arguments take advantage of the “bandwagon effect”, a cognitive bias that causes people to adopt the behaviours or opinions of others due to a desire to fit in and be liked.

    Bandwagon fallacy example
    “Everyone is getting the new smartphone as soon as it comes out this weekend. You should get it too.”

    Here, the argument is “everyone is doing it, and you should too.” However, just because a lot of people do something does not mean it’s right or good to do.

    Snob appeal

    In this variation, the arguer appeals to people’s desire to be part of an exclusive or elite group. Instead of asserting “everyone’s doing it”, the argument suggests “all the best people are doing it”. The snob appeal is often used in advertising.

    Snob appeal example
    “The new Mercedes Benz is crafted for connoisseurs who appreciate unparalleled refinement. Join the exclusive circle that savors automotive excellence.”

    The implication here is that if you buy this particular car, you will become part of an elite segment of society.

    Appeal to tradition

    Appeal to tradition (or appeal to common practice) asserts that a premise must be true or right because people have always believed it or practiced it. Alternatively, it may assert that the premise has always worked in the past, so it will always work in the future. This line of thought conflates tradition with correctness without considering whether it is justified or relevant.

    Appeal to tradition example
    “We should keep using mercury-based thermometers because we have been using them for generations.”

    Here, the argument makes an appeal to tradition to support the use of mercury-based thermometers and ignores the fact that there are modern alternatives that do not pose the health and environmental risks that mercury does.

    Ad populum fallacy example

    Ad populum fallacy is often used to defend habits, actions, or behaviours that are harmful to oneself or others simply because many or most people follow them.

    Ad populum fallacy and smoking
    “Smoking must be safe because millions of people have been doing it for years.”

    This claim commits the ad populum fallacy by suggesting that the widespread popularity and lasting presence of smoking as a habit imply its safety. However, this argument is fallacious and disregards the overwhelming scientific evidence linking smoking to severe health risks such as lung cancer and heart disease.

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    Other interesting articles

    If you want to know more about fallacies, research bias, or AI tools, make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

    Frequently asked questions about the ad populum fallacy

    How does the ad populum fallacy work?

    The ad populum fallacy plays on our innate desire to fit in (known as “bandwagon effect”). If many people believe something, our common sense tells us that it must be true and we tend to accept it. However, in logic, the popularity of a proposition cannot serve as evidence of its truthfulness.

    What is an example of ad populum fallacy in politics?

    The ad populum fallacy is common in politics. One example is the following viewpoint: “The majority of our countrymen think we should have military operations overseas; therefore, it’s the right thing to do.”

    This line of reasoning is fallacious, because popular acceptance of a belief or position does not amount to a justification of that belief. In other words, following the prevailing opinion without examining the underlying reasons is irrational.

    What is the difference between ad populum fallacy and appeal to authority fallacy?

    Ad populum (or appeal to popularity) fallacy and appeal to authority fallacy are similar in that they both conflate the validity of a belief with its popular acceptance among a specific group. However there is a key difference between the two:

    • An ad populum fallacy tries to persuade others by claiming that something is true or right because a lot of people think so.
    • An appeal to authority fallacy tries to persuade by claiming a group of experts believe something is true or right, therefore it must be so.

    Sources for this article

    We strongly encourage students to use sources in their work. You can cite our article (APA Style) or take a deep dive into the articles below.

    This Scribbr article

    Nikolopoulou, K. (2023, November 13). What Is Ad Populum Fallacy? | Definition & Examples. Scribbr. Retrieved 10 July 2024, from https://www.scribbr.co.uk/fallacy/the-ad-populum-fallacy/

    Sources

    McCraw, B. W. (2018). Appeal to the People. Bad Arguments, 112–114. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781119165811.ch16

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    Kassiani Nikolopoulou

    Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex scientific information into easily accessible articles to help students. She specialises in writing about research methods and research bias.

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