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.

10 Responses to “The Hidden Fallacies of “the Wrong Side of History””

  1. Matt


    Here’s another interpretation: History is written by the victors. Those who are victorious in the marriage debate will be on the “right” side of history and vice versa.

  2. Guestleur


    Thanks for taking the time to wrestle these matters down and the humility of admitting that there might be other aspects you haven’t thought about. Can you argue these matters in real-time, too? Because your thoughts in written form are very fascinating to follow albeit difficult sometimes — though through no fault of your own! Thanks again

  3. Thaddeus Fennig


    Dr. Spiegel, thanks so much. I had this discussion (without identifying the accurate logical fallacies) on facebook a few months ago. I love the ad populum concept.

    • Jim


      The first thing I would do is ask them what they mean by the phrase. This alone might stop them in their tracks. But if they do offer a response, it is likely to make their fallacy of choice more explicit.

  4. Dan Newcomb


    Good points. Remind me never to debate you about anything. You know too much. It does seem to me, even though they are being illogical that there is an idea that truth will out, that truth is real and can be found and will ultimately win. That is at least something I suppose but what they are really saying is that if you hold to the idea that heterosexual marriage is from God and is meant as the foundation of any stable society and has been so since the beginning, that you will one day be seen as very uncool so you better reject it now so that people won’t look back and say you were a mean person. Oh well. Thanks for the logic. I suppose if one wants to hold to what is true one must be willing to be seen as uncool or worse…I suppose…but it’s hard because you can be wrong too so…it’s a crazy world.

  5. Melissa


    How to know if you are on the wrong side of history as an American? Easy. Look outside our borders and see where society has already progressed to and we are just falling behind right now.

    • Moebius


      But have they really progressed? What in man guarantees that we will really progress, that we will always make the right kind of progress rather than the wrong ones?


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