Defining Terms: ad populum

A few days ago I used a term in a post that I didn’t explain, you may or may not have known what it meant.   Referring to a debate that  I watched between 2 men I said the following.   “One person had a set of thoughts in which they presented in turn and the second man, took a position of doubt, and really questioned everything that was said by the other person and other ad populum topics.”

to the people

ad populum – ad populum is Latin for ‘to the people‘, the phrase ad populum is used to describe a technique in debate where you make an appeal ‘to the people’ or the popular vote.    You might consider it to what is known in general to the majority of the population or think of it as common knowledge.

The danger with ad populum is that even though it is commonly known, believed or accepted, it doesn’t mean that it is right or truthful.  Phrases like “everybody knows…”,  “most educated people…”, or “all religious people know…” are examples of ad populum.  Often times the facts and evidence are  left out, and perhaps done on purpose to avoid having to deal with the reality of the real evidence.

Examples:
Everyone knows that the Bible is full of contradictions.
All scientists believe that Evolution is not longer a theory but now accepted it as fact.

So how do you handle someone who chooses to use an ad populum technique with you in a discussion or debate.  Simply call it for what it is.  You may want to ask for the facts behind the claim.  For example in our examples above, you can simply ask the person “What contradictions?”  Ask them to give you something to defend against or an opportunity to explain a “so-called” contradiction.   Or to ask what the facts are behind the theory of evolution.

Lastly you can remind them that just because something is accepted by the popular consensus, doesn’t mean that it is correct.  For example: If a majority of the class got an answer wrong on a test, it doesn’t mean that it would become right.  If ad populum always meant it was the truth, then the issues of Nazi Germany would have meant that it was okay for the Nazis to do what they did to the Jews because a majority of Germany agreed with it.  Slavery was an accepted way of life for many countries in our recent past, but that doesn’t mean that it was right either.

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