Monday, November 18, 2013

Popular Means Good

Is it true that if something is popular it must be good or right?  Cicero didn’t agree when he wrote, “I am of the opinion, that though a thing be not foul in itself, it cannot help to become so when commended by the multitude.”  Wow, strong words, and even a bit snobbish, but our word vulgar is derived from the Latin word vulgaris, pertaining to the general public.

Although ancient Romans may not have had a high opinion of popularity and what is popular, the opposite is true in modern America.  Advertisers try to get us to buy their products, not based on their merits, but on the endorsement of our neighbors and fellow citizens.  This car is the most popular.  That television show is a surprise hit.  This brand is the best-selling toothpaste.  Another video (of cute kittens or puppies or someone dancing as if he’s riding a horse) has gone viral.  Evening network news programs sometimes close with the day’s most popular video for anyone who missed it, as if this were something wonderful and newsworthy.

Popularity is looked on so favorably that popular people are allowed, even expected to express opinions in areas where they have no expertise.  Celebrities take sides in political campaigns and on political issues like gun control and energy policy.  They tell us which animals to save and which diseases should receive more funding.  As a result, the amount spent on major diseases and conditions in the US does not come close to corresponding with the number of deaths or their overall social impact.  Stars represent products that it’s unlikely they have ever tried – do you think Henry Winkler got himself a reverse mortgage?  People who have become famous by being victims of a crime or tragedy are called upon to give their opinions regarding the situation and to recommend remediation.  Parents of kidnap victims or gunshot victims are treated like authorities on preventing kidnapping or on gun control.

Polls on scientific subjects imply that majority opinion is as good as evidence in a search for the truth.  “At least 75 percent of U.S. adults say global warming has been happening…”  A strong argument in favor of global warming was that the majority of scientists agreed that it was real.  On another topic, polls, not science, drive the decision to establish 20 weeks as a cut-off for abortion laws “based on the theory that this is the point at which a fetus can feel pain.  These are a few of many examples where, as in advertising, authorities and advocates try to substitute popular opinion for evidence.

The way these stories are presented only adds to the confusion.  Science is not a voting matter.  Back when most people, including the Pope, thought that the earth was flat and at the center of the universe, that was absolutely not the case.  Voting on a subject may make it the law, but it cannot make it true.  

Movie stars, singers and Facebook friends are no better informed about politics, science or medicine than you or I, especially if we do a little research.  Popular ideas may be right or they may be wrong, but when we start accepting opinions over evidence, the real dangers of social media become clear.  The choice between making a decision based on opinions or based on facts and evidence should be a no-brainer.  It’s OK to go along with the crowd to avoid conflicts or bad feelings about small matters, but on important issues you are more likely to find the truth if you are not persuaded by the popular appeal and think for yourself.  

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