Fallacy Friday!

Today's Logical Fallacy is...Shifting the Burden of Proof!

(related to “appeal to ignorance”) This fallacy occurs when the burden of proof is placed on the wrong side of an argument. In a logical...

Friday, September 4, 2015

Today's Logical Fallacy is.... Appeal to Tradition!


("If it ain't broke, don't fix it," argumentum ad antiquitatem, Appeal to Antiquity, Appeal to Common Practice, Appeal to the Old, Old Ways are Best, Fallacious Appeal to the Past, Appeal to Age, Proof from Tradition, Appeal to Past Practice, opposite of “Appeal to Innovation”)

This fallacy is based on the argument that an idea, practice, or position is better, correct, justified, and/or acceptable just because it has “always” been practiced or believed. Usually this argument comes from the individuals or group that is served particularly well by that position, and it often takes the form of, “We shouldn't challenge time-honored customs or traditions,” or “We should continue to do things as they have been done in the past.” We often fall subject to this fallacy because we don’t often like change. Not only is it psychologically comforting to adhere to older practices and ideas, sticking with what has always been done is easier and requires less effort.


This fallacy makes two assumptions that are not necessarily true:

1. “When put in place, the original practice was based on correct principles in order for it to become common.” On the contrary, not all traditions are based on correct principles; misconceptions, bad information, bias, and prejudice are often involved in forming traditions.

2. “The justifications for the practice are as valid today as it was in the past.” Circumstances change over time, and what may have been acceptable in the past does not mean that it is acceptable today.

Just because a practice has been in place for a very long time does not mean that the practice is correct or justified. Traditions often stem from archaic beliefs that have negative effects on subsets of the population (think slavery). Age is not an adequate judge of whether or not a practice is acceptable; flat earthism was the accepted view of our world for a long time, not due to extensive evidence but due to misguided religious beliefs.

However, if something has been accepted for a long time while withstanding criticism and challenges, then it does have validity. For example, the germ theory of disease has persisted not because of tradition but because it has accumulated massive amounts of evidence to support it. Age only comes into play because we’ve had a very long time to gather evidence that supports the theory. Similarly, when quality is directly related to time (wine, cheese, wood), age is a valid consideration, but this is often not the case with most traditions.

This is not to say that all traditions should be dismissed and considered unacceptable. Victimless traditions that are preserved for the sake of preserving the traditions themselves do not require any other reason and carry important psychological, sociological, and religious function. But to carry out and defend a tradition using the primary argument of “it’s how we’ve always done it” is to commit a major logical fallacy and thus undermine your own position.

Examples:

Women have always earned less in America, so why bother trying to change it?

Of course we have to play "pomp and circumstance" at graduation. That’s always the song that is played.

Why do I make wine this way? Because my father made wine this way, and his father made wine this way.

The theory that witches and demons cause disease is far older than the germ theory of disease. Therefore, the theory about witches and demons must be true.

Sure I believe in God. People have believed in God for thousands of years so it seems clear that God must exist. After all, why else would the belief last so long?

Son: "You know father, when I was going to school in the United States I saw that American women are not treated as property. In fact, I read a book by this person named Mill in which he argued for women's rights."
Father: "So, what is your point son?"
Son: "Well, I think that it might be wrong to trade my sisters for cattle. They are human beings and should have a right to be masters of their own fate."
Father: "What a strange and new-fangled notion you picked up in America. That country must be even more barbaric then I imagined. Now think about this son. We have been trading women for cattle for as long as our people have lived on this island. It is a tradition that goes back into the mists of time.”
Son: "But I still think there is something wrong with it."
Father: "Nonsense my boy. A tradition this old must be endorsed by the gods and must be right."

Of course this mode of government is the best. We have had this government for over 200 years and no one has talked about changing it in all that time. So, it has got to be good.

Reporter: "Mr. Hatfield, why are you still fighting it out with the McCoys?"
Hatfield: "Well you see young man, my father feuded with the McCoys and his father feuded with them and so did my great grandfather."
Reporter: "But why? What started all this?"
Hatfield: "I don't rightly know. I'm sure it was the McCoys who started it all, though."
Reporter: "If you don't know why you're fighting, why don't you just stop?"
Hatfield: "Stop? What are you crazy? This feud has been going on for generations so I'm sure there is a darn good reason why it started. So I aim to keep it going. It has got to be the right thing to do. Hand me my shooting iron boy, I see one of those McCoy skunks sneaking in the cornfield."

Dave: For five generations, the men in our family when to Stanford and became doctors, while the women got married and raised children. Therefore, it is my duty to become a doctor.
Kaitlin: Do you want to become a doctor?
Dave: It doesn't matter -- it is our family tradition. Who am I to break it?

Marriage has traditionally been between a man and a woman; therefore, gay marriage should not be allowed.

Clubbing seals in Northern Europe and Canada is acceptable because hunters have done so for thousands of years.

Women have always stayed home with the kids while men have worked. It’s tradition, and we shouldn't change it.

Marriage is one of humanity’s oldest institutions, and it wouldn't have survived so long as an integral part of every culture if it were not for the fact that it is vital for our survival. Therefore, we shouldn't tamper with it or do anything that might harm it. (While the concept of marriage is old, many cultures have practiced it in many ways, and it has evolved and will continue to evolve over time. To suggest that one particular culture’s way of practicing it during a particular time period is the only acceptable way to do it is invalid.)

Prostitution is one of humanity’s oldest institutions, and it wouldn't have survived so long as an integral part of every culture if it were not for the fact that it is vital for our survival. Therefore, we shouldn't tamper with it or do anything that might harm it. (Just because it is the “world’s oldest profession” doesn't mean that the practice itself should be encouraged.)

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