Tag Archives: Socrates

Beware Crowds – Logical Fallacy #58

8 Mar

Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.
– Mark Twain

Argumentum ad Populum, or appeal to the crowd, is a logical fallacy which asserts that a proposition is true because many people believe it.

I most often see this at work in a group of people when someone who has been disagreed with, looks at the rest of the group and simply replies “come onnn“, as if to say, ‘everyone else agrees with me, why don’t you?“.

I’ve seen companies justify poor corporate practice with a similar argument: “you’ve got to understand the market, this is what everyone else is doing right now“. My response is usually of the form: “do you want to follow the crowd, or do you want to stand out from your competitors“?

It’s often used in conjunction with the Appeal To Tradition fallacy which says that because people have believed something for a long time, it’s therefore true.

Socrates spoke about the ills of following the crowd. He said that it’s important to know your own mind and not hold an opinion simply because it’s held by the majority.

For contrarians such as myself, he also warned against the opposite approach, which is disagreeing with something simply because it’s a view held by the majority.

People follow the crowd for different reasons:

  • an assumption that many people can’t be wrong
  • a lack of confidence
  • a conformity that comes out of wanting to fit in
  • apathy
  • a striving for unanimity, i.e. not wanting to rock the boat.

And sometimes it’s simply not possible to find the time to figure everything out for yourself.

While there are some valid arguments for the wisdom of crowds it does not apply in all circumstances; James Surowiecki asserts that a crowd decision is only wise if each individual came to their decision independently after considering the information they have, rather than just following the majority view without considering what they know first.

Also, what we know as a society, even as a species, is built on what our peers and predecessors have learnt – what some call our collective intelligence. However we need to be discerning in what we accept.

While we can follow the crowd consciously, it’s worth being aware of the ways in which we unconsciously follow the crowd. Solomon Asch demonstrated that we do this to a shocking degree.

So it’s worth considering what view you hold on a topic, rather than being concerned about what other people think. After all, the people I most respect are those that hold true to their own well-considered beliefs. It comes down to being true to yourself.

Don’t be a sheep. Make up your own mind.


Does Knowledge Diminish Beauty And Awe?

15 Jul

I’m often told that I shouldn’t think so deeply. That understanding something removes its beauty. That thinking about how something works somehow removes the transcendent nature or the magic of an experience.

Someone even told me, when I was talking about the theory of music and understanding more of its attraction and how it affects the brain, that I was cold and soulless! That initially made me upset, though I then realised their loss.

So here’s my favourite way of answering this odd criticism:

The sun is about 93,000,000 miles away from the earth. It is the size of 1,000,000 earths. Its surface temperature is 6,000 degrees, and it is 15,000,000 degrees at its centre. Through spectroscopy, we know that it’s made of 75% hydrogen and 24% helium, and some heavier elements constitute the final 1%. It smashes those hydrogen nuclei together at high-speed to make helium. Each of those collisions results in energy release. E=mc^2 shows that the energy release means that 4,400,000 tons of mass is lost every second to give out 380 thousand trillion terawatts of energy. It takes the light from the sun nearly 9 minutes to reach the earth.

All that information doesn’t stop me enjoying the sun. In fact those awe inspiring numbers increase the beauty of a sun rise. The knowledge of how it works only adds to the feeling; knowing that it’s a massive nuclear fusion reactor that is gently warming me increases the significance of the experience.

Anyone who says that science reduces the awe and beauty of the world has a paucity of imagination that is beyond me.

Besides, as Socrates said: The more you know, the more you realize you know nothing.

Here are Richard Feynman’s thoughts:

Here’s another view of science being awe inspiring:
I’d like to widen people’s awareness of the tremendous time span lying ahead: for our planet, and for life itself. Most educated people are aware that we’re the outcome of nearly 4bn years of Darwinian selection, but many tend to think that humans are somehow the culmination. Our sun, however, is less than halfway through its lifespan. It will not be humans who watch the sun’s demise, 6bn years from now. Any creatures that then exist will be as different from us as we are from bacteria or amoebae.”
– Martin Rees

Finally Tim Minchin puts it perfectly in his nine minute beat poem.

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