Appeal to ancient wisdom

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The appeal to ancient wisdom is an informal logical fallacy. It is the bastard child of the appeal to authority and the appeal to tradition. In its most basic form, it can be written like this;

The Appeal to Ancient Wisdom is most commonly used by woomongers of the new age and/or alternative medicine varieties. However, some creationist arguments can also be considered AtAW, with the bible as the ancient wisdom in question.

The fallacy is a naturalistic fallacy and thus an informal fallacy.


[edit] Form

  • Culture X said Thing Y.
  • Culture X lived a long time ago (bonus points if post-colonial guilt is involved)
  • Therefore Thing Y is true.

[edit] Why it's wrong

(Note that all the reasons that appeal to authority and that appeal to tradition are wrong apply here as well -- these are specific reasons the AtAW is wrong).

[edit] That which is ancient need not be wise

How old something is bears absolutely no correlation to how right it is. Trepanation is a great example. It is one of the oldest medical practices known to mankind, and it is also a heap of absolute bullshit that doesn't work. You can say the same about the Flat Earth myth, geocentrism, human sacrifice, and anything else that people used to believe in.

[edit] Science trumps wisdom

The scientific method shows extremely high predictive success and excellent correlation with reality. Ancient wisdom usually does not. There are many cases where the scientific method simply proves ancient wisdom wrong. For example, the various forms of Young Earth Creationism, most of which are inspired by the ancient wisdom of various "holy" books, are totally and insanely wrong.

There are some cases where science has actually confirmed some form of ancient wisdom -- does this vindicate the wisdom in question? Well, no. There are some cases where trial and error testing may have revealed a genuine correlation. However, prescientific cultures will probably have explained the correlation with some form of magical thinking, such as the balance of elements or the presence of spirits. Herbal medicine is a good example here. It's true that many cultures have discovered that the bark of certain trees (such as the willow tree Salix sp.) could be chewed for pain relief, but they explained this with various non-scientific explanations. The scientific method, on the other hand, has isolated the active ingredient in these trees and turned it into aspirin. Would you rather take an aspirin or munch on a willow?

[edit] Appeal to historically inaccurate ancient wisdom

In some cases, usually where the woomonger is either lying or deluded, the "ancient" wisdom isn't even ancient, but based on historical inaccuracy. The Mayan Calendar explanation of the 2012 apocalypse is an example -- the Mayan calendar doesn't actually end on 21/12/12 for various reasons (for example, the Maya had contingencies for restarting their calendar just like we do, and they only had a 365-day year instead of a 365.24-day year). Some chiropractors and homeopaths also make erroneous appeals to ancient wisdom, claiming that their "medicine" is thousands of years old, when we can track both of them back to the 19th century.

[edit] Example

From the days of Plutarch and Ptolemy, it was a generally held belief that the presence of garlic would destroy a magnet. This was apparently held as fact for hundreds of years, until the 1600s, when Sir Thomas Browne[wp] had the bright idea of actually trying it out. Finding that garlic does not, in fact, have any anti-magnetic effect, he published the results in his Pseudodoxia Epidemica, a sort of 17th-century MythBusters.

A few years later, Alexander Ross[wp] responded in his Arcana Microcosmi:

Whereas the ancients held that garlick hindred the attraction of the Loadstone, he contradicts this by experience; but I cannot think the ancient Sages would write so confidently of that which they had no experience; of, being a thing so obvious and easie to try; therefore I suppose they had a stronger kind of garlick, then is with us.

[edit] See also

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