Ever heard someone refer to a certain view as being on the “wrong side of history”? It is an increasingly common expression. And I find it particularly annoying, because it is typically used as a way of challenging, if not completely dismissing, the view in question, while the speaker or writer offers nothing in the way of an argument or evidential support for doing so.
Lately this phrase has been employed by everyone from Lucas Case at the Huffington Post to Shephard Smith at Fox News as both have appealed to the notion that those opposing same-sex marriage are “on the wrong side of history.” Other recent examples can be found here and here.
So what exactly does this popular phrase really mean? Two possibilities come to mind. The expression might be intended to suggest that, as time goes on, most people, perhaps everyone, will hold the view in question. Thus, Case and Smith are just saying that eventually a strong majority of Americans will favor same-sex marriage. But, if this is what it means, then we might well ask, what does that have to do with the truth of the view? How relevant is majority opinion to discovering the correct view on this issue? The answers to those questions, of course, are “Nothing” and “Not at all.” To suggest otherwise is fallacious reasoning, a logical error known as the ad populum (appeal to popular opinion) fallacy. Even if everyone agrees about a particular view, it doesn’t follow that its true. (History is replete with cases of extremely popular views that we know to be horribly mistaken.)
Another possible meaning of the expression “wrong side of history” is that the view in question will eventually be proven true, such as through some scientific or philosophical argument. So, on this interpretation, Case and Smith are using the phrase to communicate their belief that reason will inevitably demonstrate that their view, that same-sex marriage should be legal, is correct. But how could Case and Smith be so confident about that? They certainly don’t offer any arguments themselves, nor even suggest whence such arguments might eventually come. So their bold proclamations really amount to groundless dogma. And this, too, is a logical fallacy, specifically known as the fallacy of unsubstantiated claim.
These two interpretations of the phrase “wrong side of history” seem to me to be the only really plausible ones. Perhaps there is a more reasonable sense of the phrase that I am overlooking. If so, those who use this expression have effectively concealed it, for they never explain what they mean. But if I’ve correctly identified the hidden meanings of the phrase, then the implications aren’t flattering for those who use it. For it appears that those who do so commit one of two fallacies: the ad populum fallacy or the fallacy of unsubstantiated claim. In either case, use of this phrase appears to be, as it were, on the wrong side of logic.