Arsenal & Argumentum Ad Populum

By Daniel Cowan
In Arsenal
Mar 4th, 2014
3 Comments

This article first appeared as a guest post on PositivelyArsenal on March 3rd 2014.

Why do we torture ourselves with things we know deep down do not make logical sense? After every draw or loss, there is a deluge of anger and melancholy on social media about things we would either know to be mendacious statements if we took the time to examine it obdurately, or things we do not have any clarity on.

For example; the Luis Suarez situation. What do we truly know about it? We have read some reports and heard some statements from people on the outskirts of the issue but what do we know to be true? To be verifiable fact? I’ll get into that in a minute but first let me explore the phenomena we torture ourselves with – argumentum ad populum or argumentum ad numerum.

Argumentum ad populum or ad numerum is Latin for “appeal to the people” and “appeal to the number” and is possibly more familiar to you as communal reinforcement. It basically means believing an opinion* to be true because it is repeated by the masses. Twitter is a breeding ground for this. In the aftermath of a poor result, anger takes over, opinions are espoused and they gain traction. Papers then write articles that deliberately and ignominiously enforce these opinions because they know people will click on the article, either to nod themselves into a stupor in fervent agreement or spread the word by taking to social media and shouting “look at what this bullshit rag full of hacks has published” in outrage. And we all fall for this calculated hit-seeking garbage every time.

These articles are essentially an accelerant to the argumentum ad populum fire and retrospectively “validate” the opinion. It then has us arguing over facts and opinions and then after we’ve thrown personal insults at one another, and had our friends weigh into the debate, we have the token level-headed person who says “come on guys, we all want the same thing and we’re all entitled to our opinion”. This is where it gets grammatically murky because most of what we are arguing about is actually belief or prejudice (not the really negative and vile type of prejudice I should clarify).

What do I mean by this? Well, in writing/debate/opinion etc (based on The Little, Brown Handbook by H. Ramsey Fowler) there are four components to what we are saying – Fact. Opinion. Belief. Prejudice.

A fact is verifiable. A fact is beyond argument, such as “mainland Britain is an island”. Facts, however, only have meaning when given context. Facts are the antithesis of argumentum ad populum in construct.

*Opinion, something we all think we are expressing in these arguments, is a conclusion drawn from a fact. For example, ‘Man City spend a lot of money (fact), and they win trophies (fact), so I think we need to spend more money to win a trophy (opinion)’.

Belief is a conviction or viewpoint based on faith or in some cases personal morals. For example, ‘aliens exist’ (faith) or ‘meat is murder’ (morals) . A belief is not based on fact or evidence. Some people may choose to believe there is evidence based on hearsay, conjecture, lack of evidence to the contrary or media “reports”.

Prejudice is a “half-opinion” based on insufficient evidence or evidence that has not been scrutinised. For example, ‘Wenger doesn’t want to spend money’.  How do you know that? Because he hasn’t spent as much as others? Spending less than others is not a fact that means he doesn’t want to spend. Such prejudices are presented as fact or opinion. They are neither. We all do this.

We all accept the prejudice of others if it matches with our own and it perpetuates into argumentum ad populum. Prejudices like this aren’t to be confused or banded with “isms” (sexism, racism etc). These types of prejudices are just carelessly simplified views but they are dangerous when they are communally reinforced.

Back to Suarez. There is no doubt that for whatever reason the pursuit of Suarez was totally cocked up in the summer. Was the +£1 so contemptible to Liverpool they decided to flip us off? Possibly. Did they indeed ignore the buy-out clause as was suggested by John W. Henry recently and take the calculated risk neither Arsenal nor Suarez would pursue it? Was the PFA correct in the summer when they claimed it was not a buy-out clause at all?

Certainly the PFA’s statement can retrospectively be claimed as a cause for argumentum ad populum because JWH’s statement contradicts it. Which is fact and which is opinion? Who is more likely to know the details of Suarez’s contract? His club owner or the PFA? That is where belief and prejudice come into play because the ‘facts’ are not verifiable to us mere mortals. Only those in the halls of power of football can clarify the facts and I can’t see them doing that just so Arsenal supporters will stop arguing amongst themselves.

The two worst cases of argumentum ad populum from the Suarez situation relates to Higuain and Sanogo.

The communal reinforcement surrounding Higuain is the prejudiced argument “we missed out”. This “opinion” as people would call it is based on personal interpretation of “facts” and because it has gained traction people take it as fact because of argumentum ad populum.

What we know is Arsenal abandoned their pursuit of Higuain to chase Suarez. Whilst doing so Higuain joined Napoli. The argument is we should have gone back for Higuain once the Suarez deal was dead. How can you miss out on a player who has been sold?

A fair criticism would be saying Arsenal should never have chased Suarez but to say that would mean you cannot complain about Arsenal not signing better players because Suarez is a better player than Higuain and based on information available to the club they believed it was possible to secure the better player. Ignoring the fiasco that followed can you genuinely say you feel the club was wrong to target the better player?

You could also say Arsenal should have gone back for Higuain the moment Liverpool wouldn’t play ball instead of dragging it out. This would be a fair opinion because it would be based on the fact we switched targets and attempted to negotiate with Liverpool. So that would make the opinion/belief “Arsenal missed out on the opportunity to sign Higuain by putting all their eggs in the Suarez basket”. This is quite different. Wording is important. It explains that Arsenal missed something by doing something – the road not taken if you will, which is a fact. The road was not taken. The current argument suggests gross incompetence and negligence which is a prejudice not a fact.

The Sanogo argument ad populum says Arsenal deliberately did not buy a world-class striker in favour of signing Sanogo. This is “enforced” by the fact he has played some games.

Here is a very crude analogy. Complaining about Sanogo is akin to complaining about buying toilet paper instead of sauce to go on your pasta. First consider if the shop had any sauce or if they did, did they have the one you wanted, or a something equally as good? Second, consider what will happen to your pasta if you don’t get sauce. Will it still be edible? Yes. Will it fill you up? Yes but maybe not to the degree it would with sauce and it might not be as tasty. Third, consider what will happen after you have eaten that pasta. Eventually you will need the toilet paper. It is forward planning.

Sanogo, forgive me, is toilet paper. He was not bought instead of sauce; he was bought with the future in mind. Try not to over-analyse that analogy – I realise it isn’t perfect but it makes the point.

He has played because he was needed to, not because Wenger didn’t need or want Suarez. Remember, Sanogo was signed before we bid for Suarez. Believing we don’t buy strikers because we signed Sanogo is buying into argumentum ad populum. It is not a fact and is not an opinion, it is a belief.

And it is these argumentum ad populum’s that we torture ourselves with. We get angry, we scream at the team, we complain about the manager and the board and use these false facts as reasons for doing so. We have righteous anger but we express it in unrighteous ways or use an argumentum ad populum as a reason for the thing that led to the anger.

We were absolutely shocking at Stoke and that is something to be righteously annoyed about and something we have every right to question but false facts do not explain the performance.

It cannot be proven that buying a striker would have changed that result or made the other ten players perform better or stopped the referee from giving Stoke a free pass to stamp on Giroud or give an incredibly harsh penalty. So why use argumentum ad populum to say it would have?

Some people say we should play Podolski more often because he is the best finisher and whilst we lack a world-class striker we should make more use of him instead of playing Giroud but what did Podolski do against Stoke? Not much is the answer. And why was that? Many reasons but one is we didn’t give him enough chances. A striker’s job isn’t to give the left-forward chances all game so a new striker may not have benefited him at all. The midfield needs to take responsibility for that. But that would not fit the popular theory.

We lost to Stoke because we were toothless, because our passing was poor, because we miss Ramsey and Theo, because of bad decision making in the box and because we didn’t create enough chances. These are mostly facts. The chances we did create were poorly executed. Sanogo skied a ball to equalise but that is not proof we don’t want to buy a striker. Cazorla made an arguably bigger error.

As the more experienced player it can be argued that Santi not passing to Podolski or Giroud, who were both in clear scoring positions, was worse than an inexperienced player rushing his shot. But this article is not about blame.

What I am try to get at, in a very long-winded manner, is we shouldn’t make ourselves angry over non-facts masquerading as facts because of communal reinforcement and should recognise them for what they are. We should form opinions on fact, as it always has been not dress up prejudice or belief as fact without verifiable fact.

There is plenty for us to be angry about without adding falsities and unsubstantiated claims to the list.

Maybe impending fatherhood is making me more serene and I’m not saying you are not entitled to such beliefs but I do think presenting them as fact and encouraging others to believe the same through, possibly innocent, regular espousal is causing much unrest. Argument ad populum is for fools and we’re not fools, are we?

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About "" - 473 Posts

I am a South London born Gooner now living in Leigh-On-Sea, Essex. I'm a husband, daddy, podcaster, trainer enthusiast and aspiring author. My work is my passion and for that I will always be grateful. Here is where I write my thoughts and views on Arsenal Football Club, the greatest team the world has ever seen.

3 Responses to “Arsenal & Argumentum Ad Populum”

  1. Mick says:

    Thoroughly enjoyable read, well done.

  2. Vinay says:

    Well said Daniel as always, the fact is its easy to blame in the hindsight, this was the same team that destroyed sunderland yet were toothless against stoke, how can there be such a huge disparity? Wenger would have been led to believe that this team is more than enough to beat stoke but that they dint shows that the players are to be blamed more so than the manager, even though wenger was wrong not playing ox/gnabry against stoke who are susceptible to pace.
    I still believe in this team, they have it in them to beat anyone, its more the will to do so that is the problem, its not the skill.

  3. Jon says:

    It’s hard to resist, though, when you see the same basic headline repeated ad nauseum, especially when they play on our hopes and fears. The emotional manipulation is maddening (how’s that for paradox?). Almost as much as studying opposition players, a fan has to learn the tendencies, skills, and weaknesses of certain websites. Much like Charlie Adam’s stomp on Giroud, we have to remind ourselves, “that’s what Adam does”, and it’s the same with certain websites.

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