Truth by Majority Opinion?

There is a logical fallacy called the Bandwagon Fallacy, or an Appeal to the Majority Fallacy, or various other permutations. The idea is that just because a lot of people (4/5 Dentists, for example) do something or believe something doesn’t mean they’re right or what they believe is true. In our age of ultra-connectivity, social media influencers, activist celebrities and all manner of other media onslaught this fallacy is more relevant and dangerous than ever.

The truth remains, however, that simply being the minority opinion does not mean you’re wrong. Or stupid. Or evil. And being the majority opinion doesn’t mean you’re right. Or smart. Or virtuous.

Thriving as we do on righteous indignation, cancel-culture and revisionism of all stripes, it is imperative we remember this. Not just in retrospect, but in the moment. The more people scream at you that you’re wrong because all these other people are convinced their right, the more you need to hold on in quiet maturity. Listen to what they have to say. Weigh the evidence (if there is any), be as objective as you can, but don’t cave in to pressure to change your opinion just because a lot of other people insist your point of view must be wrong. In the absence of incontrovertible evidence, we must recognize in humility the constant possibility of error – well-intentioned or otherwise.

Two excellent cases in point.

First, as I’ve maintained for years, if you object to a law the best course of action is not to ignore the law but to work to change it. Laws are there for a reason. They are not perfect and may need to be amended or replaced, but simply to ignore them creates bigger problems. Immigration laws are a leading example of this. But it’s not just the US where our laws are routinely ignored because of some vaguely defined public opinion. Case in point, Great Britain, and the story of someone who was due to be extradited for violations of the law but his case was reversed because of agitation by immigration lawyers and a slew of celebrities and political officials. Instead of being back in his own country where he legally belonged, he remained in Great Britain and went on to commit and be convicted of murder. Not surprisingly, those people who previously very publicly advocated for the man not to be extradited are now completely silent when asked to comment on the situation.

After all, no need to admit you might have been wrong, to question the use of celebrity to circumvent the rule of law and all that jazz. We’ll just pretend nothing happened and move on with our lives. Lovely.

Another example comes in the wake of Covid. I won’t go into the ridiculousness about the early promises regarding vaccines compared to their eventual reality. But just in the matter of trying to understand how all of it started there was a great deal of insistence on what could or couldn’t have happened. Early on there were suspicions that a Chinese biomedical research facility near Wuhan (the epicenter of the outbreak) might have accidentally leaked the virus. It’s not an unrealistic surmise, but it was angrily and loudly denounced by a great many media and other figures who found it racist or insulting to the Chinese.

Perhaps our relations were better with China back then because there certainly seemed to be a strong desire not to offend them, and the idea of a lab leak was scuttled by and large by the preferred narrative of a cross-over event in a wet market, possibly from contaminated bats. Also a possible explanation, to be sure. But I was curious at the time why so many people seemed so insistent that this had to be the truth, and not the equally plausible alternative of a lab leak – particularly in light of Chinese reticence to share information about the early stages of the outbreak.

Now, in addition to the FBI, the US Department of Energy released a report this week indicating a low-level of support for the lab leak theory. Interesting on a variety of levels (Why is the Department of Energy weighing in on this topic?!). Is there a need for this sort of report at this time? Is it another means of ratcheting up hypothetical pressure on or against China in light of their stance on the Ukraine War? It’s odd, to say the least.

But certainly not odd enough for the media to immediately begin mitigating it. We are assured in a follow-up article that the DoE’s report is only a low-confidence assessment, meaning they aren’t confident that their findings are correct, but they (I assume) warrant releasing the report (again, why?). And, further, the lab leak theory continues to remain a minority view among those who weigh in on this sort of thing (qualified or otherwise, I presume).

The heart of the matter is that we don’t know for sure what happened. Maybe we will someday, but I don’t think that’s likely at this point. Therefore to have two or more possible explanations hardly seems extravagant. There seems to be no compelling reason to accept China’s proffered explanation of a cross-over infection at a Wuhan wet market. Particularly in light of the information of a nearby lab known to be researching exactly this sort of virus. Yet the public is being coached in terms of a majority and minority view which view to have. Why?

Truth is not a matter of majority rule. Application may be. But truth remains truth regardless of what we say or think about it, or whether we accept it or recognize it. Objective truth simply is. Sometimes discoverable as such. Sometimes revealed as such. Sometimes surmised as much. Sometimes convenient and other times not so much. But always true. No matter how many people want it to be or not.

Let’s quit treating people as stupid when their conclusions don’t match our own. Instead let’s focus more on training ourselves and our children to know the difference between a logical fallacy and a truth. Let’s teach them that media and celebrities can be just as flawed and inaccurate in their judgments and conclusions as the people they’re comfortable attacking. That should keep us plenty busy as the truth is ferreted out.

One Response to “Truth by Majority Opinion?”

  1. dunganm Says:

    Well and truly said, IMHO!

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