Not many people like to be out on a limb. Many prefer instead the comfort of solid numbers behind them, feeling there is less possibility that so many others could be mistaken. The argumentum ad numeram wrongly equates the numbers in support of a contention with the correctness of it. Ideas which have mass support are not necessarily more likely to be right; but the ad numeram supposes that they are.
Fifty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong!
(A glance at the history of that nation will show that they very often have been.)
The fallacy lies in the fact that the Tightness or wrongness of a contention is neither helped nor hindered by the numbers in support. Many people are quite often wrong about even simple things, and received wisdom is not to be equated with factual knowledge. Simple observation, such as that which shows planets and stars turning across the skies, can be an unreliable guide, no matter how many millions attest to its truth.
Everybody’s smoking Whifters, why don’t you?
(Because he thinks everybody is stupid.)
The ad numeram can appeal to general numbers, or more insidiously, to the numbers of those you respect. You might be more impressed by the proportion of top people taking The Times, than by the numbers backing Britain’s biggest daily sale. The question to ask yourself is whether the numbers add anything to the claim.
We have an argument here about whether Ballasteros ever captained a European golf team. Let’s settle it democratically.
(And before you jump off a building, make sure you have enough votes to carry repeal of the law of gravity.)
If ideas were decided by numbers, no new ones would ever be admitted. Every new idea starts out as a minority viewpoint and gains acceptance only if the evidence for it wins converts over from the prevailing view. If numbers are the test, then Giordano Bruno was wrong when he said the earth moved around the sun, and the authorities were right to burn him at the stake.
We have to give him a fair trial before we string him up. All those who say he did it shout ‘aye!’
(Amazing proof! Sounds kinda unanimous to me.)
The ad numeram provides an excellent defence of established attitudes.
If it’s not true, then why have so many millions of people believed in it for so many centuries?
(Easy. We all make mistakes.)
The ad numeram is the special fallacy of the demagogue and the mob orator. Those who govern us tend to form a special class whose outlook and assumptions are not commonly shared. They often come from a milieu in which the pressures of poverty, overcrowding and crime bear rather less upon them than they do upon most. This gives the demagogue the opportunity to appeal to numbers in support of ideas which find little echo in government. On subjects such as capital punishment or race relations, he can appeal to the agreement of large numbers on his side as evidence of a conspiracy of silence by the governing elite.
Every opinion poll shows that public whipping is the best remedy for those who commit crimes of violence.
(And if you asked them, they’d probably say the same about garotting and disembowelment. They could be just as wrong or, indeed, right.)
The ad numeram is a fallacy to be used with passion. In its ideal setting you would be haranguing a rabble of 600 people armed with blazing torches outside a corn merchant’s house during a famine. Even in print, you should not turn an ad numeram into a clinical counting of heads, but conjure up out-rage that the obviously correct view of so many should be ignored.
When your side is in an unfortunate minority, the technique is to quote from the past, when your lot were on top, or from foreign countries where you do have a majority to back you. Sweden is an excellent source for majorities in favour of the most bizarre things.
Are we to say that all Swedes are fools? That the people of the world’s most enlightened country don’t know what they are talking about?