Monday, October 8, 2012

irrelevant appeal to tradition

The irrelevant appeal to tradition is a fallacy in reasoning in which one argues that a practice or a belief is justifiable simply because it has a long and established history. An example of this fallacy can be found in an article by Valerie Reiss on how to choose a psychic:

Christianity sees divination as going against the Bible's mandate not to seek "soothsayers," because that would be expressing a lack of faith in God as omnipotent and all-knowing. Yet many ... of the world's religions and cultures have woven it into their fiber--Hinduism uses Vedic astrology to match marriage partners; in Chinese culture, an expert is consulted on the most mundane to crucial life matters--from when to get married to where to live. Wanting to know what will happen is not just a result of our modern brains grasping for control and answers; it's been the human condition for millennia, people have been seeking prophecies since Greeks took often long journeys to consult the Oracle at Delphi. ("5 Things to Know Before Going to a 'Psychic'")

Reiss argues that since divination has been practiced for millennia in various cultures, it must be good despite what some Christians might say is forbidden by the Bible. The fact that some cultures have been engaging in magical and superstitious thinking for thousands of years does not justify the practice, any more than thousands of years of slavery or abuse of women would justify those practices. Humans have been beating each other to death in boxing matches for millennia, but that hardly justifies the practice.

The fact that Vedic astrology is still practiced in Hinduism isn't a good reason for thinking that this is a good thing. In fact, it's a bad thing. There is no compelling evidence that any kind of astrology is useful for divining the future, and the belief in this superstition is an open door to fraud and corruption in India (see Guru Busters for an example of one of the corrupt godmen astrologers who asks his followers on national television to kill those who exposed his scam). Ms. Reiss might consider how she would feel if her marriage was arranged by an astrologer. There might be a better way.

Reiss doesn't mention what experts are consulted in Chinese culture, but it is apparent that she is referring to various kinds of soothsayers. These "experts" bank on the ignorance and superstition of their clients. Perhaps one doesn't need any kind of expert to advise them on when to get married or where to live.

Surely Ms. Reiss is not advising 21st century people to return to the ways of the ancient Greeks. I doubt if too many modern Greeks consult temple oracles for advice on anything, but if they did they might consider that there are much better ways of getting information about the future. We've come a long way since the days of Cassandra. We have a bit more knowledge than the ancient Greeks did about how things happen and why. Using that knowledge to reason inductively about the future, guided by techniques that have been refined over many centuries, has proven to be vastly superior to any form of divination provided by psychics, intuitives, or other soothsayers.

The number of years that something has been practiced, in itself, does not justify that practice. The fact that magical thinking persists in many areas of modern life does not mean that magical thinking is superior to other methods. Rather than be guided by the inferior methods of our ancestors, we would be better off if we tried to understand why these primordial ways of evaluating experience persist and what we might do to overcome the tendency to think like our ignorant predecessors. Rather than rejoicing in ancient errors, we might do better to train ourselves in ways of overcoming our tendencies to fallacious thinking.

Finally, one wonders why Ms. Reiss doesn't see that even though the Christians base their aversion to soothsaying on an appeal to authority, their counter-tradition nullifies her appeal to tradition. Or is Ms. Reiss arguing that three traditions trump one tradition? If she is, she's also committing the ad populum fallacy.

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