by Tim Harding
Appeal to Tradition or argumentum ad antiquitatem (also known as ‘appeal to common practice’) is a common informal fallacy that occurs when it is assumed that something is better or correct simply because it is older, traditional, or ‘has always been done.’ For example, arguments of this type often begin with phrases like ‘It has been a long-standing tradition that…’ on the assumption that such words are persuasive.
The placebo industry (aka ‘alternative medicine’) relies heavily on this fallacy by appealing to the notion that ‘traditional medicine’ or some rare berry or plant root has been used for thousands of years, often in a hidden valley in some exotic Eastern country. Strangely, this argument is regarded by the placebo industry (and gullible consumers) as more persuasive than any evidence that the product actually works. This fallacy is often comitted in combination with the Appeal to Nature fallacy.
This sort of reasoning has the following form:
Premise: P has always been done.
Conclusion: Therefore P is right or good.
This argument is fallacious because the conclusion does not logically follow from the premise. There are plenty of counterexamples where something that has always been done or believed in is now regarded as wrong or false such as:
- Belief in the pseudoscience of astrology is thousands of years old;
- People believed that Sun revolved around the Earth (rather than vice versa) until only a few hundred years ago;
- The idea of the Flat Earth is much older than the idea that the Earth is round;
- Slavery was considered normal until only a couple of hundred years ago;
- Women have continuously been treated like second class citizens in certain parts of the world.
The opposite of an appeal to tradition is an appeal to novelty – claiming something is good because it is new. This type of advertising hook is often used to sell new technology, such as software updates, when many of us know of new operating systems that have actually been inferior to their previous versions.
Since false beliefs tend to be rooted out over time, the long-term persistence of a belief can provide some degree of inductive evidence for its credibility, but not sufficient to qualify as a cogent argument. There are lots of ancient ideas that have persisted to modern times, but they are still false e.g. astrology, quackery, beliefs in the paranormal etc.
An appeal to common practice can be valid if the cost of abandoning the practice or switching to an alternative outweighs the benefits of doing so. For example, re-defining the direction of the flow of current in electrical circuits to match the direction of the flow of electrons might aid education by reducing confusion, but doing so would come with the significant cost of re-writing text books and translating any technical material that covered the topic. Another example is that the cost of changing the calendar to a year zero other than the birth of Jesus would be far greater than the benefits. Non-Christians would be wiser to stick with the familiar Christian calendar dates.
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