The Appeal To Novelty And The Appeal To Tradition

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By aaron

The appeal to novelty and the appeal to tradition are two different but closely related fallacies. Both are commonly used in debates over science and technology, so let's look at each of them in detail.

The appeal to novelty is a fallacy in which someone concludes that something is better simply because it is newer. This fallacy is very common in the world of technology, because technology often is better than that of previous generations. But being new does not in itself make it better. A piece of technology is better because it is faster, more powerful, or more energy efficient, not because it is new. The technology graveyard is littered with products that were newer but not better because they failed to provide any of those improvements in speed or power.

For a good example, let's look at the rise of tablet computers. The history of tablets goes back many decades, with numerous tablets being built as early as the 1980's. In fact, there is a patent for a system of handwriting recognition that dates all of the way back to the year 1915. Even Apple released a tablet in 1993 called the Apple Newton. If being new was all that mattered, tablet PCs would have become popular decades ago, but that is clearly not the case. In fact, tablets have only become popular in the last few years as they have started offering additional benefits that other computers don't. And what market share they do have has been challenged by more powerful phones that offer even more benefits over tablets. It took much more than novelty to make the tablet succeed.

Another example from technology can be seen in software. Security experts often recommend against using the latest bleeding edge version of software because it often contains new code that can introduce security vulnerabilities into the software. Such experts suggest sticking with the current stable version until the bugs in the new software have been fixed. The latest version may be newer, but it is not better because it still contains bugs. This is just one more example of a case in which newer does not necessarily mean better.

The appeal to tradition

The opposite of this fallacy is called the appeal to tradition. In other words, the appeal to tradition is the claim that something is better because it is older. If you have ever heard someone justify something by saying, “This is how it has always been done”, then you have seen this fallacy.

This fallacy is commonly used by people who support ancient medical practices like accupuncture. They frequently use the argument that accupuncture has been around for thousands of years, so it must be effective. This argument is fallacious. Just because something has been around for thousands of years, that doesn't mean it works. Keep in mind that even as recently as the American Civil war, doctors were mainly tasked with making people feel better while they died, and it required minimal qualifications to become a doctor. Also, if ancient medicine was so much better, then why has the average life expectancy continued to climb with each generation? The increase in life expectancy is due to a combination of factors including better sanitation, improvements in agriculture, and more, but more effective medical practices are also on that list. In addition, infant mortality is much lower when modern, evidence-based medicine is available, further disputing the claim that ancient medicine is automatically better.

The appeal to tradition is based on the assumption that the old ways of solving a problem were created by someone of exceptional skills or intelligence, and is thus better than anything we can come up with now. That assumption, of course, is not always correct. It might be true that the old ways were developed by very smart and capable people, but that doesn't account for the fact that science and technology are always moving forward. Those old ways might have been the best solution at the time, but new advances often mean there is another better way to do something. In contrast, the appeal to novelty relies on the assumption that old technology has various shortcomings, and new technology must be better because it accounts for those shortcomings. That is not the case.

As a trivial example, consider furniture. If you are buying new furniture, you first have to define what “better” actually means. If “better” just means cheaper, then modern, self-assembled furniture might be better. But if you want quality, it is hard to beat something like sturdy, handmade Amish furniture. The precise definition of “better” is a matter of context and personal preferences. For some people, the new way is better, for others, the old way is better. But in either case, it is only better because it has a precise set of characteristics that fit your personal needs and preferences. Hardly anything in life is better solely as a result of being older or newer.

Whether the topic is technology, health care, or a simple decision about which furniture to buy, that decision has to be made only after putting the word “better” into some sort of context, then using that context to evaluate every option with an open mind. #logic #skepticism #critical thinking #fallacy #fallacies

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