- “Everybody knows that earth is millions of years old.”
- “Virtually no one rejects the idea of humans’ evolutionary origins.”
- “We’re not living in the dark ages; nobody believes in a literal Genesis anymore.”
Statements like these can sound convincing—if not irresistible. When thousands, millions, or billions of people agree that an idea is right, how could it possibly be wrong?
Before we unpack how Scripture, logic, and psychology help answer this question, let’s think about a couple of other ideas that thousands of people have held throughout history:
Idea #1: Life Can Spring From Non-life (Spontaneous Generation)
To try explaining life’s origins naturally, the Greek philosopher Anaximander (c. 611–547 BC) suggested aquatic animals first appeared in “moisture” and gave rise to humans.1 Aristotle later popularized the idea that life regularly emerges from nonlife, proposing, for instance, that worms arise from rotten matter.2
Throughout the following centuries, even many scientists interpreted their observations to support such beliefs.3 Seventeenth-century physician John van Helmont, for example, observed that mice appeared in jars containing wheat and soiled cloth. But other experiments challenged the hypothesis of spontaneous generation, including Francesco Redi’s observation that meat in sealed containers does not produce maggots.
In 1859, creationist Louis Pasteur’s observations that broth does not generate bacteria largely ended the debate. Before then, the belief that animals frequently arise from nonlife had remained “common knowledge” for well over 1000 years! Because so many people believed in spontaneous generation for so long, did that make it true?4
Idea #2: Some People Are “Less Human”
The same year Pasteur performed these experiments, Darwin released his book On the Origin of the Species, popularizing the idea that all living things evolved from common ancestors. This belief encouraged the widespread idea that some humans have evolved more than others5—a notion which was logically consistent with the brutal forms of racism it inspired.6 The related idea that strong societies should favor certain “races”7 over others for evolutionary purposes also provided philosophical justification for the holocaust in Nazi Germany.8 Today, similar ideas—combined with the underlying worldview that every human is an evolutionary by-product rather than an invaluable person created in God’s image—help fuel widespread practices like the abortion of disabled children.9
Because so many people believed (and continue to believe) that not all humans matter equally as persons, does that make it true?
Insights from Scripture
.In Matthew 7:13–14, for instance, Jesus observed that while few people enter the “narrow gate” to salvation, many follow the “wide path” leading to destruction.
Thinking about examples like these reminds us that no idea is true simply because many people believe it. The Bible even warns us that, regarding some important issues, the majority of people are decidedly wrong. In Matthew 7:13–14, for instance, Jesus observed that while few people enter the “narrow gate” to salvation, many follow the “wide path” leading to destruction. Sinful humans do not always want to believe the truth, meaning that majority opinion often stands against Jesus, not for him (John 3:19 & 15:18). Similarly, Peter, Paul, and John warned about false teachers who would deceive large numbers of people.10 So, the reality that hordes of people do not accept biblical teachings only confirms what God has spoken. And it’s his word, not majority consensus, that provides a sure foundation for our thinking.
Insights from Logic
The idea that majority consensus determines truth is not only unbiblical but also illogical. After all, no number of wrong ideas can eventually equal a right one. Even if everyone alive chanted “2 + 2 = 5” for endless hours, the laws of mathematics would not change themselves accordingly. So, saying that a message must be true because many people believe so involves a type of fallacy—a faulty form of logic—called appeal to the people, or ad populum.
Ad populum ranks among a host of logical errors called fallacies of irrelevant premises, which claim that a message is true for any reason besides logic. Like other such fallacies, you can outsmart ad populum fallacies with the critical thinking hack of asking, “Is this message true or false, because . . . ?” In this case, we’d ask, “Is a message true because many people believe it?” And as Scripture and history confirm, the number of people who believe a message is logically irrelevant to whether that message is true.11
Insights from Psychology:
Back in the 1950s, for instance, a series of famous experiments by psychologist Solomon Asch revealed that a full third of adults will give a wrong answer to an easy question simply because everyone else in the room does.
If ad populum is illogical, why do widespread ideas sound so persuasive? For one reason, humans are socially wired creatures. We typically want to fit in, be accepted, and be liked.
Decades of research have attested how easily this desire for conformity can compel people to endorse wrong ideas. Back in the 1950s, for instance, a series of famous experiments by psychologist Solomon Asch revealed that a full third of adults will give a wrong answer to an easy question simply because everyone else in the room does.12 Remarkably, however, conformity rates drop dramatically if just one other person in the room answers correctly, showing the power of one person who stands up for truth.13
Another reason why widespread ideas may sound persuasive is that our brains have learned that copying others’ behavior is often a safe bet when we’re unsure what to do (think table etiquette at dinners with a million forks). At such times, we use a mental shortcut called the follow-the-majority heuristic to make snap decisions based on the assumption that the majority’s choices are probably best. We rely on this shortcut so frequently that, according to some research, we’re far less likely to think critically about arguments which we believe express a majority opinion.14
As the examples at the beginning of this article illustrate, however, majority opinion is not always correct. So, overreliance on the follow-the-majority heuristic can lead to a faulty thinking pattern (cognitive bias) called the bandwagon effect, which advertisers exploit by telling us to buy a product because “everybody’s using it.”
Knowing When (Not) to Follow
Ultimately, while following the majority is not always unwise, the trouble comes when our desire to conform with others overrides our exercise of biblical, critical thinking.
Ultimately, while following the majority is not always unwise, the trouble comes when our desire to conform with others overrides our exercise of biblical, critical thinking. Thousands, millions, or billions of people can be—and have been—wrong together. To avoid falling for ad populum fallacies, we must accept or reject ideas based not on the number of people who espouse them but on whether they’re true. And the ultimate standard for discerning truth is not the opinions or interpretations of fallible man, but the word of our infallible God.15