Tag Archives: Marketing

Science or snake oil: is manuka honey really a ‘superfood’ for treating colds, allergies and infections?

The Conversation

File 20170912 3875 hr07v0
Sure it tastes nice, but what else can it do? from http://www.shutterstock.com.au

Nural Cokcetin, University of Technology Sydney and Shona Blair

Manuka honey is often touted as a “superfood” that treats many ailments, including allergies, colds and flus, gingivitis, sore throats, staph infections, and numerous types of wounds.

Manuka can apparently also boost energy, “detox” your system, lower cholesterol, stave off diabetes, improve sleep, increase skin tone, reduce hair loss and even prevent frizz and split ends.

Some of these claims are nonsense, but some have good evidence behind them.

Honey has been used therapeutically throughout history, with records of its cultural, religious and medicinal importance shown in rock paintings, carvings and sacred texts from many diverse ancient cultures.


Read more: Honey could be a potent medicine as well as a tasty treat


Honey was used to treat a wide range of ailments from eye and throat infections to gastroenteritis and respiratory ailments, but it was persistently popular as a treatment for numerous types of wounds and skin infections.

Medicinal honey largely fell from favour with the advent of modern antibiotics in the mid-20th century. Western medicine largely dismissed it as a “worthless but harmless substance”. But the emergence of superbugs (pathogens resistant to some, many or even all of our antibiotics) means alternative approaches to dealing with pathogens are being scientifically investigated.

We now understand the traditional popularity of honey as a wound dressing is almost certainly due to its antimicrobial properties. High sugar content and low pH mean honey inhibits microbial growth, but certain honeys still retain their antimicrobial activity when these are diluted to negligible levels.

Many different types of honey also produce microbe-killing levels of hydrogen peroxide when glucose oxidase (an enzyme incorporated into honey by bees) reacts with glucose and oxygen molecules in water. So, when honey is used as a wound dressing it draws moisture from the tissues, and this reacts to produce hydrogen peroxide, clearing the wound of infection.

The antimicrobial activity of different honeys varies greatly, depending on which flowers the bees visit to collect the nectar they turn into honey. While all honeys possess some level of antimicrobial activity, certain ones are up to 100 times more active than others.

How is manuka different to other honey?

Manuka honey is derived from the nectar of manuka (Leptospermum scoparium) trees, and it has an additional component to its potent antimicrobial activity. This unusual activity was discovered by Professor Peter Molan, in New Zealand in the 1980s, when he realised the action of manuka honey remained even after hydrogen peroxide was removed.

The cause of this activity remained elusive for many years, until two laboratories independently identified methylglyoxal (MGO) as a key active component in manuka honey in 2008. MGO is a substance that occurs naturally in many foods, plants and animal cells and it has antimicrobial activity.

Australia has more than 80 species of native Leptospermum, while New Zealand has one, but the “manuka” honeys from each country have similar properties. There is currently a great deal of debate between the two countries over the rights to use the name “manuka”, but for simplicity in this article we use the term to describe active Leptospermum honeys from either country.


Read more: Manuka honey may help prevent life-threatening urinary infections


Can manuka honey kill superbugs?

The activity of manuka honey has been tested against a diverse range of microbes, particularly those that cause wound infections, and it inhibits problematic bacterial pathogens, including superbugs that are resistant to multiple antibiotics.

Manuka honey can also disperse and kill bacteria living in biofilms (communities of microbes notoriously resistant to antibiotics), including ones of Streptococcus (the cause of strep throat) and Staphylococcus (the cause of Golden staph infections).

Crucially, there are no reported cases of bacteria developing resistance to honey, nor can manuka or other honey resistance be generated in the laboratory.

There is good evidence manuka honey kills bacteria. Ryan Merce/Flickr, CC BY

It’s important to note that the amount of MGO in different manuka honeys varies, and not all manuka honeys necessarily have high levels of antimicrobial activity.

Manuka honey and wound healing

Honey has ideal wound dressing properties, and there have been numerous studies looking at the efficacy of manuka as a wound dressing. Apart from its broad-spectrum antimicrobial activity, honey is also non-toxic to mammalian cells, helps to maintain a moist wound environment (which is beneficial for healing), has anti-inflammatory activity, reduces healing time and scarring, has a natural debriding action (which draws dead tissues, foreign bodies and dead immune cells from the wound) and also reduces wound odour. These properties account for many of the reports showing the effectiveness of honey as a wound dressing.

Honey, and in particular manuka honey, has successfully been used to treat infected and non-infected wounds, burns, surgical incisions, leg ulcers, pressure sores, traumatic injuries, meningococcal lesions, side effects from radiotherapy and gingivitis.


Read more – Use them and lose them: finding alternatives to antibiotics to preserve their usefulness


What about eating manuka honey?

Most of the manuka honey sold globally is eaten. Manuka may inhibit the bacteria that cause a sore (“strep”) throat or gingivitis, but the main components responsible for the antimicrobial activity won’t survive the digestion process.

Nonetheless, honey consumption can have other therapeutic benefits, including anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant and prebiotic (promoting the growth of beneficial intestinal microorganisms) properties. Although, these properties are not solely linked to manuka honey and various other honeys may also work.

What doesn’t it do?

There is a commonly touted belief that eating manuka (or local) honey will help with hay fever because it contains small doses of the pollens that are causing the symptoms, and eating this in small quantities will help your immune system learn not to overreact.

But there’s no scientific evidence eating honey helps hay fever sufferers. Most of the pollen that causes hay fever comes from plants that are wind pollinated (so they don’t produce nectar and are not visited by bees).

There is some preliminary work showing honey might protect from some side effects of radiation treatment to the head and neck that warrants further investigation. But other claims honey has anti-cancer activity are yet to be substantiated.

If you’re putting honey in your hair you’re probably just making a sticky mess. from shutterstock.com

There isn’t any robust scientific evidence that manuka lowers cholesterol, treats diabetes or improves sleep. Although one interesting study did show honey was more effective than cough medicine for reducing night time coughs of children, improving their sleep (and their parents’). Manuka honey wasn’t used specifically, but it may well be as helpful.

Claims that anything helps to “detox” are innately ridiculous. Similarly “superfood” is more about marketing than much else, and the cosmetic and anti-ageing claims about manuka are scientifically unfounded.

Final verdict

If consumers are buying manuka honey for general daily use as a food or tonic, there is no need to buy the more active and therefore more expensive types. But the right kind of honey is very effective as a wound dressing. So if manuka is to be used to treat wounds or skin infections, it should be active, sterile and appropriately packaged as a medicinal product.

The best way to ensure this is to check the product has a CE mark or it’s registered with the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration (marked with an AUST L/AUST R number).

The ConversationManuka honey isn’t a panacea or a superfood. But it is grossly underutilised as a topical treatment for wounds, ulcers and burns, particularly in the face of the looming global superbug crisis.

Nural Cokcetin, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Technology Sydney and Shona Blair, General Manager, ithree institute UTS

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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How the tobacco industry is gaming Australian health regulations

The Conversation

Steven Greenland, Swinburne University of Technology

Australia’s tough tobacco regulations are acting as a catalyst for the industry to develop sophisticated marketing practices. These companies are gaming the system by anticipating regulatory impact and then using unregulated marketing elements to overcome it.

Australia has been a guiding light for countries looking to improve public health through the effective regulation of tobacco, which remains the world’s biggest cause of preventable illness and death, and still kills around 15,000 Australians annually.

December 2012 saw the implementation of Australia’s innovative plain packaging legislation, this was followed by four 12.5% annual tobacco tax excise increases. As a result the number of Australian smokers has fallen to a record low.

However the tobacco industry has used several strategies, including price reduction, brand differentiation and promoting the idea of healthier cigarettes, to undermine Australia’s new regulatory environment.

Plain packaging was introduced in 2012 to much fanfare, but tobacco companies are making serious efforts to alleviate the effects of plain packaging on their bottom line.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Pricing for packets

To offset price hikes manufacturers have expanded lower priced product ranges, with new ultra low priced brands. One example of this is the British American Tobacco Australia’s (BATA) Just Smokes, which sells for around 70% of the premium brand prices. BATA has also shifted Rothmans, previously a premium brand, into the economy segment by cutting its price by more than 30%.

Another pricing initiative is twin pack promotion. Most consumers recognise that progressively larger packs offer progressively lower unit prices – a lower cost per single item or single pack.

This used to be true for tobacco, with the largest cartons (usually with 200 cigarettes) offering best value. However, since 2012 discounted twin packs represent best value.

A supermarket twin pack, per cigarette price, is up to 10% cheaper than single packs – effectively discouraging single pack purchases. Australia’s leading brand Winfield twin pack, per cigarette price, is equal to or below that of larger cartons.

Regulatory price increases are financial deterrents to smoking. The low price branding and discounting strategies in Australia are clear attempts to get around these, and reduce smokers’ financial motivation to quit or cut down.

Heavily discounted twin packs also teach smokers, through financial reward and penalty, to buy twin rather than single packs. This is of particular concern since research shows that larger purchases trigger higher consumption.

In 2014 the industry claimed tobacco consumption had actually increased after plain packaging. While this was disproved, it suggests big tobacco anticipated increased consumption as smokers switched to twin pack purchase behaviour.

New tobacco products and promotions

Plain packaging was expected to restrict tobacco brands. However, after 2012 manufacturers introduced numerous new products, and brand ranges actually expanded.

For example, Australia’s leading brand Winfield supported more than 20 brand variants in 2015-2016 compared to just 12 in 2012-2013. Brand differentiation is a proven marketing approach for generating greater sales, with each variant targeting a specific consumer market segment.

Since plain packaging was introduced, tobacco companies have varied the names of brands as well. Names have evolved to include the information previously covered by packaging, such as colour and new product features. For example, Dunhill Infinite is now Dunhill Infinite White + Taste Flow Filter.

Today around 80% of Australia’s leading brands’ variant names include a colour, compared to less than half before plain packaging. Tobacco companies are also using colours to mislead consumers that certain product ranges are “healthier” options.

A universal colour code has been promoted by the industry in which smokers interpret lighter colours (white, silver, gold, yellow and blue) as being less harmful, and darker colours (red and black) as more harmful. Before plain packaging colour hues were a pack design component, now the myth of healthier tobacco options is perpetuated by colour names. This is disturbing from a public health perspective as it represents industry efforts to lessen smokers’ health motivations for quitting.

The effects of clever marketing

Australia’s tobacco regulations have significantly reduced smoking. However, their impact would be greater without unscrupulous industry initiatives to overcome and thwart them.

Industry response to plain packaging and excise increases have not been simple marketing efforts to increase sales, but illustrate cynical attempts to reduce financial and health motivations for quitting, and to encourage smokers to smoke more. Australian regulators, and those in other countries, should therefore consider further regulation.

Research suggests that future effective controls might include:

  • Introducing a standard fixed per stick price for all cigarettes – preventing differentiation by price and cheaper brand options
  • Prohibiting price variation by pack size – preventing volume discounting or twin pack promotion that encourage smokers to make larger purchases and smoke more
  • Restricting pack size to a maximum of 10 or 20 cigarettes to limit increased consumption associated with larger pack sizes
  • Banning colour variant names – removing colour-health connotations
  • Restricting brand variant ranges, for example to one variant or representation per brand, to limit the way tobacco companies use differentiation to increase sales.

The tobacco industry is committed to gaming regulations, like plain packaging and tax excise increases, and developing approaches to undermine their impact. However, the Australian government is equally committed to reducing the national adult daily smoking rate to 10% by 2018. The additional tobacco controls outlined above should help the government achieve this.

The ConversationSteven Greenland, Associate professor, Swinburne University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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When ‘hand crafted’ is really just crafty marketing

The Conversation

Katherine Wilson, Swinburne University of Technology

In their attempts to cash in on peak hipster, fast-food giants are passing off assembly-line products as small scale, bespoke creations that carry an aura of moral authority.

Six months ago, McDonald’s opened a café in Sydney’s inner-West, where chambray-shirted baristas serve single-origin coffee alongside quinoa salads on wooden boards. The café is called The Corner, but The Guardian soon described it as: “McDonald’s disguised as a hipster café”.

And to customers worldwide, McDonald’s launched its “artisan grilled chicken”, its “artisan roll” and other artisan-manque products. Domino’s released “Artisan Pizza”, and PepsiCo released Kaleb’s Cola, a “craft soda” in a glass bottle bearing the notation, “Honor in Craft”. Nowhere on the bottle is mention of the multinational behind it.

In Australian Coles supermarkets, the Always Fresh brand is promoting its “Artisan Collection” lines as “authentic, carefully-crafted”. Its biscuits and preserves are “hand-crafted”; its crackers are “thoughtfully baked”. In the drinks isle Cascade’s “crafted” range of fizzy drinks includes (inexplicably) a “crafted for Australians” plain soda water.

Hand made or machine made? Kim Kyung Hoon/Reuters

These descriptors are lies, because mass-producers simply can’t make “craft” or “artisanal” products. These words refer to autonomous human-scale production that’s too mindfully- and bodily-involved for the assembly-line. To a craftperson, conception and physical production are inseparable, and their relationship with their craft — be it breadmaking, songwriting or neurosurgery — is somatic.

Division of labour completely wipes “crafting” from the fabrication process. Craft involves risk and unpredictability; manufacturing, on the other hand, involves predictable and uniform outcomes.

So consider the significance of McDonald’s’ current “How Very Un-McDonald’s” and “Not So Fast Food” campaigns. These campaigns invite us to custom-select ingredients on a touch-screen and enjoy table-service by — who knew? — a person. Faced with a slump in profits, the fast-food giant is experimenting with ways to shed brand-staleness and seduce a 20s-to-30s demographic that regards McDonald’s as distinctly uncool.

But this seems less a gesture towards slow food values and more an admission that the brand and all it represents has become déclassé. When they trade on artisanal notions of authenticity, industrial food giants deny their own, which lies in cheap, standard products manufactured with alienated labour and dispersed supply chains. You can’t be an authentic Tim-Tam if you were “thoughtfully crafted” from seasonal local ingredients.

Spot the difference

Corporate craft-washing campaigns may deceive some, but their mawkish descriptors betray them as sops. McDonald’s “artisan” chicken contains “pantry seasonings” (distinct from industrial flavours) and “100% chicken” (distinct from who-knows-what). Pepsi’s craft soda has “quality ingredients”, no less, devised after “months talking and tasting” (more artisanal than “focus-grouping”).

Genuine craft producers aren’t inclined to spruik these ways, because their customers have the culinary literacy to discern a local sourdough from an industrial soda bread.

In his 2014 book, “The Language of Food”, Stanford University professor Dan Jurafsky observes that good quality food labels and menus tend to be short on adjectives. Marketers of industrial food, on the other hand, oversell with such descriptors as “real”, “artisan”, “quality”, “authentic” and “passionately-crafted”.

US brewing giant MillerCoors is facing a class action law suit for passing off its Blue Moon brand as craft beer. Treasure/Flickr, CC BY

But a backlash is mounting. Following recent complaints against the craft claims of Byron Bay Beer, ACCC Chairman Rod Sims said:

“We judged that any reasonable consumer would think that it was brewed in Byron Bay by a small Byron Bay brewing company.”

But the beer “was a actually brewed by Carlton and United Brewery out of its large Warnervale brewery.”

David Hollier, president of the Australian Real Craft Brewers Association, said craft beer drinkers believe they are “supporting authentic small, independent… local family-owned breweries. The big two brewers have capitalised on that”.

But CUB was fined A$20,400, and similar cases are emerging overseas. Californian man Evan Parent recently sued brewing giant MillerCoors for claiming its Blue Moon beer is “artfully crafted”. His lawyer Jim Treglio told reporters:

“People think they’re buying craft beer and they’re actually buying crafty marketing.”

Even insiders are rebelling against such marketing. Last year, the ACCC received “industry intelligence” that Saskia Beer’s “Black Pig” products contained white pig meat. Heritage black pig breeds can be more free-ranging than white pigs, as they are less susceptible to sunburn. The company was ordered to undergo compliance training and publish a corrective notice.

Similarly, Pirovic Enterprises was fined A$300,000 for claiming its eggs were free-range. “Although there were no strict legal definitions of free-range, the court was able to base its findings on consumers’ expectations about what that particular form of farming should involve”, said Associate Professor Jeannie Paterson from the University of Melbourne’s Law School.

The same principle, she says, was applied when Coles was fined A$2.5 million over “freshly baked” bread claims, when the bread was first par-baked in Ireland.

Over there, the Food Safety Authority is reportedly clamping down on “artisan”, “traditional” and “farmhouse” claims, warning that these should only describe products made “in limited quantities by skilled craftspeople” at a “micro-enterprise”, and ingredients should be local where possible. Last week, the Authority ordered McDonald’s to remove artisan claims. This is a regulatory trend moving across Europe and the US, and in Australia, the ACCC is also devising guidelines.

Artisan-posturing by industrial producers isn’t just a matter of regulatory transgressions. Industrial food giants who “craft-wash”, or use idioms of craft while trashing its essential values, are actively obscuring a set of political issues. Ethical consumers are often well-heeled, for sure, but their deep pockets attend to a deeper commitment to small enterprise, localism, fair trade, ethical supply chains, seasonal produce, farm animal welfare, workers’ freedoms and low environmental impact.

Australian consumer law prohibiting deceptive conduct “does not just apply to deliberate lies,” says Paterson. “It also covers conduct that creates a misleading impression by manipulating common community understandings.” So as artisanal deceptions continue to mount, so, too, do the legal precedents for a foodie-pundit backlash.

The ConversationKatherine Wilson, PhD Candidate, journalist, Swinburne University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.
 

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Quit sugar, go paleo, embrace ‘clean food’: the power of celebrity nutrition

The Conversation

Rebecca Charlotte Reynolds

Celebrities of nutrition evoke feelings of awe, envy and adulation in many of us. While the Gwyneth Paltrows of the group first achieve celebrity status in other fields, others first make a name for themselves in food and nutrition, despite not having formal nutrition qualifications. Think Pete Evans, Sarah Wilson and Belle Gibson, whose nutrition empire has crumbled over the past week.

Nutrition celebrities often promote “fad diets”, which are strict diets that often eliminate entire food groups and don’t have a solid scientific basis. In fact, they often demonstrate a misunderstanding of biochemistry and other basic nutrition science.

The Paleo Way by Pete Evans forbids grains, legumes, dairy and coffee, among other things. Evans’ website claims “Paleo is all about balance”, but in reality, is anything but balanced.

Before Belle Gibson’s cancer diagnosis was questioned, she touted “clean eating”, discouraging the consumption of gluten, dairy and genetically modified foods, among other things. She promoted “detoxing”, which involved “alkalising your system” by drinking lemon water, and recalibrating “your digestive and immune system” by cutting out fruits such as bananas and apples.

Sarah Wilson “quit sugar” and recommends cutting out fruit for the first few weeks of her eight-week I Quit Sugar program because it “allows you to break your sugar addiction and for your body to recalibrate”.

It’s no surprise that the British Dietetic Association listed
the paleo diet and the sugar-free diet as two of their top five worst celebrity diets.

When it comes to healthy eating, we know what works. The Australian Dietary Guidelines may not sound as sexy as these fad diets, but they’re the result of painstaking work to summarise the best scientific evidence on what constitutes a healthy diet and how diet can promote health.

So why do nutrition celebrities have so much pull? And what impact might it have?

The good

Nutrition celebrities have done some good in the world. They have undoubtedly changed the nutrition habits of some of their followers for the better. This might include increasing their intake of fruits and vegetables, abandoning added sugar- and salt-laden foods such as some breakfast cereals, and helping followers who are overweight or obese to lose weight.

These changes are of particular importance when you consider the high rate of excess weight and obesity and the low intake of good foods like vegetables in the Australian population.

The bad

The negative effects of celebrity nutrition range from public confusion about what is good to eat and drink, to death.

A trusting, vulnerable and adoring member of the public might just decide that Belle Gibson is right – who needs modern medicine for cancer? Gibson claimed she cured her multiple cancers through alternative means. Jessica Ainscough, founder of the Wellness Warrior, died prematurely last month after choosing alternative cancer therapy that included endless juices and coffee enemas.

Belle Gibson’s book, The Whole Pantry, has been pulled from circulation in Australia and the US launch of the book next month has been cancelled. Her “health, wellness and lifestyle” app has also been pulled from Australian and US app stores.

Also this week, Pete Evans’ Bubba Yum Yum DIY baby milk, which is composed of blended liver and bone, has attracted criticism that it could risk the health of babies. This broth provides toxic levels of micronutrients such as vitamin A. This can cause permanent damage and even death.

While Evans’ publisher Pan McMillan has announced it will not be releasing the book, Evans plans to release it as an e-book.

Followers of celebrity nutrition advice may become unnecessarily strict with their eating and drinking (think awkward dinner parties), develop an eating disorder, or become malnourished.

A paleo diet can compromise bone health by reducing calcium intake. A gluten-free diet can be associated with reduced fibre and vitamin intakes.

A sugar-free diet that suggests reducing fruit intake is just plain unhealthy. And sugar-free eating isn’t actually sugar-free. Many recipes contain rice malt syrup, which is chemically defined as a sugar and increases blood sugar levels much more so than an apple would.

The marketing

So, why do nutrition celebrities have so many followers when what they are selling isn’t usually evidence-based, reliable or healthy for most?

So many of us are stressed and tired, and looking for quick fixes. We associate celebrity with happiness and wealth. We’re sold a whole lifestyle and the idea that food can be a magical elixir that can cure all ails.

We are drawn in by fancy blogs, colourful cook books, Instagram feeds of stylised food photography shoots, the Twitter hashtags #paleo #cleaneating #rawfood #sugarfree #glutenfree #detox #juice, and Facebook stories of struggling lives turned around in an instant.

It’s easy to see why this is more appealing that listening to government guidelines and advice from doctors, nutritionists and dietitians that scientific evidence doesn’t support the elimination of entire food groups or elements such as dairy, gluten, legumes, grains and fruit from the diets of most people.

Perhaps we need to strategically market evidence-based nutrition information to have broader appeal.

So, turn this:

Screen shot of Eat for Health – Australian Guide to Healthy Eating. 

Into this:

Screen shot of The Paleo Way website. 

To counter the fads, we need to consider innovative ways of communicating to Australians about what constitutes a eat a healthy, balanced diet that is based on evidence. Nutrition celebrities’ marketing strategies might teach us a thing or two about how to sell this message.


Further reading: The ‘hole’ in the pantry story: should Penguin have validated Belle Gibson’s cancer claims?

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.


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Argument from Popularity

by Tim Harding

The informal fallacy known as argumentum ad populum means ’argument from popularity’ or ‘appeal to the people’.  This fallacy is essentially the same as ad numerum, appeal to the gallery, appeal to the masses, common practice, past practice, traditional knowledge, peer pressure, conventional wisdom, the bandwagon fallacy; and lastly truth by consensus, of which I shall say more later.

The Argument from Popularity fallacy may be defined as when an advocate asserts that because the great majority of people in general agree with his or her position on an issue, he or she must be right.[1]  In other words, if you suggest too strongly that someone’s claim or argument is correct simply because it’s what most people believe, then you’ve committed the fallacy of appeal to the people.  Similarly, if you suggest too strongly that someone’s claim or argument is mistaken simply because it’s not what most people believe, then you’ve also committed the fallacy.

Agreement with popular opinion is not necessarily a reliable sign of truth, and deviation from popular opinion is not necessarily a reliable sign of error, but if you assume it is and do so with enthusiasm, then you’re guilty of committing this fallacy.  The ‘too strongly’ mentioned above is important in the description of the fallacy because what most everyone believes is, for that reason, often likely to be true, all things considered.  However, the fallacy occurs when this degree of support is used as justification for the truth of the belief.[2]

It often happens that a true proposition is believed to be true by most people, but this is not the reason it is true.  In other words, correlation does not imply causation, and this confusion is the source of the fallacy, in my view.  For example, nearly every sane person believes that the proposition 1+1=2 is true, but that is not why it is true.  We can try doing empirical experiments by counting objects, and although this exercise is highly convincing, it is still only inductive reasoning rather than proof.  Put simply, the proposition 1+1=2 is true because it has been mathematically proven to be true.  But my purpose here is not to convince you that 1+1=2.  My real point is that the proportion of people who believe that 1+1=2 is true is irrelevant to the truth or falsity of this proposition.

Let us now consider a belief where its truth is less obvious.  Before the work of Copernicus and Galileo in the 15th and 16th centuries, most people (including the Roman Catholic Church) believed that the Sun revolved around the Earth, rather than vice versa as we now know through science.  So the popular belief in that case was false.

This fallacy is also common in marketing e.g. “Brand X vacuum cleaners are the country’s most popular brand; so buy Brand X vacuum cleaners”.  How often have we heard a salesperson try to argue that because a certain product is very popular this year, we should buy it?  Not because it is a good quality product representing value for money, but simply because it is popular?  Weren’t those ‘power balance wrist bands’ also popular before they were exposed as a sham by the ACCC?[3]

For another example, a politician might say ‘Nine out of ten of my constituents oppose the bill, therefore it is bad legislation.’  Now, this might be a political reason for voting against the bill, but it is not a valid argument that the bill is bad legislation.  To validly argue that bill is bad legislation, the politician should adduce rational arguments against the bill on its merits or lack thereof, rather than merely claim that the bill is politically unpopular.

In philosophy, truth by consensus is the process of taking statements to be true simply because people generally agree upon them.  Philosopher Nigel Warburton argues that the truth by consensus process is not a reliable way of discovering truth.  That there is general agreement upon something does not make it actually true.  There are several reasons for this.

One reason Warburton discusses is that people are prone to wishful thinking.  People can believe an assertion and espouse it as truth in the face of overwhelming evidence and facts to the contrary, simply because they wish that things were so.  Another is that people are gullible, and easily misled.

Another unreliable method of determining truth is by determining the majority opinion of a popular vote.  This is unreliable because on many questions the majority of people are ill-informed.  Warburton gives astrology as an example of this.  He states that while it may be the case that the majority of the people of the world believe that people’s destinies are wholly determined by astrological mechanisms, given that most of that majority have only sketchy and superficial knowledge of the stars in the first place, their views cannot be held to be a significant factor in determining the truth of astrology.  The fact that something ‘is generally agreed or that ‘most people believe’ something should be viewed critically, asking the question why that factor is considered to matter at all in an argument over truth.  He states that the simple fact that a majority believes something to be true is unsatisfactory justification for believing it to be true.[4]

In contrast, rational arguments that the claims of astrology are false include firstly, because they are incompatible with science; secondly, because there is no credible causal mechanism by which they could possibly be true; thirdly, because there is no empirical evidence that they are true despite objective testing; and fourthly, because the star signs used by astrologers are all out of kilter with the times of the year and have been so for the last two or three thousand years.

Another example is the claims of so-called ‘alternative medicines’ where judging by their high sales figures relative to prescription medicines, it is quite possible that a majority of the population believe these claims to be true.  Without going into details here, we skeptics have good reasons for believing that many of these claims are false.

Warburton makes a distinction between the fallacy of truth by consensus and the process of democracy in decision making.  Descriptive statements of the way things are, are either true or false – and verifiable true statements are called facts.  Normative statements deal with the way things ought to be, and are neither true nor false.  In a political context, statements of the way things ought to be are known as policies.  Political policies may be described as good or bad, but not true or false.  Democracy is preferable to other political processes not because it results in truth, but because it provides for majority rule, equal participation by multiple special-interest groups, and the avoidance of tyranny.

In summary, the Argument from Popularity fallacy confuses correlation with causality; and thus popularity with truth.  Just because most people believe that a statement is true, it does not logically follow that the statement is in fact true.  With the exception of the demonstrably false claims of astrology and so-called ‘alternative medicines’, popular statements are often more likely to be true than false (‘great minds think alike’); but they are not necessarily true and can sometimes be false.  They are certainly not true merely because they are popular.  This fallacy is purely concerned with the logical validity of arguments and the justification for the truth of propositions.  The identification of this fallacy is not an argument against democracy or whether popular political policies should or should not be pursued.

References:

Clark J. and Clark T., (2005) Humbug! The skeptic’s field guide to spotting fallacies in thinking Nifty Books, Capalaba.


[1] Clark and Clark, 2005.

[2] Feiser and Dowden et al, 2011.

[4] Warburton, 2000.

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