Vox Populi

Vox Populi is literally the voice of the people and refers to attempts to ascertain what the people think about specific matters.  It is also referred to as the opinion of the man in the street or the man on the Clapham omnibus.  Presumably such formulations include women!

This is a form of support for claims that suffers from the democratic fallacy (see previous post) but one without all the benefits of elections or formal voting by a group and the process that support such democratic activity.

There are respectable ways to identify the voice of the people.  Well designed opinion polls have merit as of course do votes conducted of all the people in referendums.  However due to cost a referendum is only usually used for very large questions. Some states allow for referendums as part of the normal electoral cycle thus minimising cost but of course retaining the democratic fallacy problem.  Even a well conducted opinion poll is not a negligible cost.  Moreover the wording of the question(s) can strongly influence the response thus allowing the process to be subverted to the ends of those conducting the poll or referendum.

Focus groups which consist of a small group of supposedly representative participants are a way to gauge the voice of the people but normally involve too few to present statistically reliable results. Moreover they potentially suffer from biases as to who is selected to join the group.

The worst cases of attempts to present the voice of the people are often seen in television news programmes where the intrepid reporter, microphone in hand, interviews men or women (quite often literally on a street, but not the Clapham omnibus) asking for their opinions on matters of the day.

If the intention is to ask a random person, who may well have little understanding of the subject, their views one must ask why this would be of interest to a viewer of a news report.  If however the intention is to represent such anecdotes as the genuine “voice of the people” there are significant concerns:

  • Who has selected those particular people and their views to be aired.
  • How do you know that those selected to be put forward are representative.
  • Have the broadcasters selected the people on a suspect basis to confirm their prejudices, supporting the editorial line or indeed merely who is most photogenic. It is surprising how many attractive young women appearing on these news segments.
  • There cannot be any adjustment of the sample to fit more accurately with the population as may be done with a well conducted opinion poll.
  • The sample size broadcast, normally one to five people, is too small to have any statistical significance so of no relevance.
  •  Why should an independent observer be concerned as to the views of a few people even if selected randomly?

However the way these interviews are conducted and reported normally attempts to convey some spurious authenticity that cannot, in any way, be justified.

Which ever way the voice of the people is sampled, even if conducted in an honest and exemplary manner, it suffers from the democratic fallacy problem (see previous post).

When claims to truth are supported by Vox Populi evidence then they should be treated with care especially if no further evidence is presented. If the statistical basis is suspect, questions seem biased, the sample size negligible, or it is an attempt by some broadcaster to generate, potentially selective support for a claim: then such evidence should be rejected. Finally you must assess how relevant is the voice of the people to the claim; the democratic fallacy problem?


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