Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Little. Yellow. Different. (Fallacies, Part 9)

Red herrings are responses to an argument that don’t address the substance of the argument — they’re distractions. This week we’ll look at two related red herrings: the appeal to tradition and the appeal to novelty.

Argumentum ad antiquitatem

Tycoon and inventor Alfred Lee Loomis is one of the most important 20th century scientists you’ve never heard of. A nephew of Secretary of War Henry Stimson, it was Loomis who was asked to review the famous Einstein letter suggesting that FDR investigate the fissionable properties of U-235 as a potential military weapon. Loomis, who knew Einstein well, said he thought it was a good idea.

During the First World War, Loomis worked at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland, and told stories about his time there. When working with a cannoneer unit, he was puzzled by one of the soldiers, who always walked about 50 paces in back of the rest of the company, and who stood stock-still for hours at a time with one arm slightly raised. Upon investigation, Loomis learned what the man was there for: he held the horses.

The horses were already gone by then, of course, but the soldier remained on duty. Why? It was tradition. There had always been someone delegated to do that job, so he remained.

The appeal to tradition, formally known as argumentum ad antiquitatem, is an argument that a proposition is true because it is in line with some tradition. It’s right because it’s always been that way.

This fallacy rests on two shaky assumptions:

  1. The old way of thinking or behavior was correct when it was introduced.
  2. Nothing materially has changed to alter it.

The argument against gay marriage, for example, rests primarily on the appeal to tradition: gays have not been permitted to marry in most cultures and time periods; therefore, gays should not be permitted to marry in this culture and in this time period. Arguments against blacks or women having full citizenship often rest on this particular fallacy as well.

Argumentum ad novitatem

The pain reliever Nuprin used to advertise its product in three words: “Little. Yellow. Different.” Of them, the third is the key. Nuprin, one is supposed to infer, is a superior pain reliever because it’s newer.

If it’s not necessarily true that traditional is better, neither is the reverse assumption a reliable guide to truth. The appeal to novelty, or argumentum ad novitatem, argues that a proposition is true simply because it’s new and modern.

Newer and more modern may indeed be superior. Next year’s computer will likely have more powerful features than last year’s. Software version 4.3 probably has fewer bugs than 4.2. The claim becomes a fallacy when the newness itself is the only argument being made for it.

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