Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Doggerel #13: "People Have Believed This For Thousands of Years!"

Welcome back to "Doggerel," where I ramble on about words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

Many of you will instantly recognize this as argumentum ad antiquitatem, or the appeal to tradition. This one is somewhat of an appeal to authority as well, presuming that if human civilization believed something for a long time, there must be some validity to it. Of course, the big problem with this is that humans have believed all sorts of silly things over the ages.

Humans are fallible creatures, and they have several kinds of known problems in their thinking process. Just because lots of humans once believed in something doesn't mean they did the sort of error checking that science requires. Bogus medicine gets passed on through generations because of the placebo effect fools lots of people. That's why we have the double-blind control study, for instance: It's designed with our capacity for self-delusion in mind. The vast majority of silly things mankind typically aren't subjected to error-checking processes. Some people were hideously tortured and burned alive for even suggesting the possibility of error in some of these beliefs.

For traditional and alternative "medicine," it's often no different: The practitioners are almost never willing to put their treatment to the test: They're content to draw results from unblinded, uncontrolled testimonials, a method known for producing false positives, thanks to the human failings of confirmation bias, the regressive fallacy, misattribution of natural improvement, and dozens of others.

In matters of religion, the ancients' "knowledge" is usually built on ignorance combined with unrestrained imagination. Just because the ancients didn't know what caused lightning doesn't mean it was Zeus. Just because we allegedly don't know how IC evolves doesn't mean there's Intelligent Design at work. Just because your particular religion has been around for thousands of years doesn't mean it's been error-checked.

Put simply, a belief's age has nothing to do with its validity. If the belief is wrong, it's only a testament to human stubbornness.


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Dikkii said...

What I hate about this one, is that when people say, "But it's been around for thousands of years," and I say, "Isn't that a good reason why not to believe it," they don't understand.

And by don't understand, they really, really don't get it. They don't get that it hasn't changed techniques, it hasn't improved, there's no body of research they can refer to, and more than that, when you compare, for example, acupuncture to, for example, leeches and bloodletting, you're likely to get a response of, "Well that's different."

People might have believed it for thousands of years. Their loss. Not mine.

Bronze Dog said...

I sense much anger in you. But thankfully, not much fear. ;)

Well, that's different.

Think I might try an entry along those lines. Quick summary of it: "Just what's different about it?"

Ranson said...

I think that'd be a good one, Bronzedog. You doing one of the better dissections of bad thinking out there. Keep it up.

Michael Bains said...


Anonymous said...

"People Have Believed This For Thousands of Years!"

"So I take it you have no problem with slavery and human sacrifice . . . ?"