Logical Tradition?

With the holiday season wrapping up, Canadians and people across the world have one last hurrah in New Year’s before the season is over and the world ends. I like to say “Holiday Season,” it’s a fun phrase. It’s basically a catch-all’ism that includes everything from Halloween to New Years, designed to lump together the major traditions that occur this time of year, such as Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanza.

That’s sort of the subject of my post today. Tradition.

All those holidays I mentioned involve certain ceremonies that are unique to them, but not all of us take part in those ceremonies. Yet the vast majority of us still embrace the holiday to some degree. Why?
One answer is tradition.

Tradition being the set of information/ideas/beliefs et all, that are passed down from generation to generation.

For example, perhaps your tradition for the holiday season is to get together with your family, eat turkey, give gifts to each other and promote harmony within your family group. Now, what is there to say about that? Well let me pose a hypothetical question to you: suppose you don’t like turkey that much. You can eat it and keep it down okay but you’d much rather eat hot dogs with relish. So why don’t you? Well the tradition in your family is to eat turkey, it’s been that way for five generations and that’s that.

Now what could be wrong with that?

For starters, tradition is a poor line of reasoning to base an idea or action on. (You knew I was going for this, didn’t you?)
The actual term is argumentum ad antiquitatem, which means any irrelevant appeal to tradition to justify some belief or activity.
i.e. Why do we eat turkey? Because we always eat turkey.
Skeptics should be quite familiar with this course of illogical reasoning. It often crops up when it comes to questions of alternative medicine. You might hear something like “traditional Chinese medicine has been used for thousands of years” or “treating X with Y has been the tradition of Native Americans for Z years.”

While that might sound like a ringing endorsement, in Western Europe medical tradition frequently involved blood letting. So maybe you say, “Okay well maybe Europeans were stupid, but nothing like that ever happened in medieval China.” Actually a common practice in China was to drink mercury.
The point I’m trying to make is that just because something was or has been done for thousands of years doesn’t make it automatically good. Other examples: slavery, wife abuse, not bathing more than twice a year…or ruffs.

I don’t think the appeal to tradition fallacy is all that controversial. In fact, I’m sure most people can understand why tradition isn’t a good reason to justify something. Yet, we do it all the time! Why is that?

I’m no psychologist or psychiatrist. But there is an element of hubris involved that’s hard to ignore. I remember many instances as a child trying to ask questions of my parents only to get a cold “so you think you know better than five generations of Clow’s eh?” (For the record yes I do. It would be a very sad state of affairs if my great-great-great-great-great grandfather was more informed of the natural world than I am.)

For a lot of people, if something is good enough for their ancestors, it’s good enough for their descendents. Again, this seems so illogical to me, take the simple example of my parent’s first cell phone versus my current cell phone, never mind the apps, just the sound quality alone is worth the upgrade.

So could it be a matter of “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it?” That seems likely. I could even image how that mentality could be favored by evolution. If you have a spear that works, you might not be tempted to fiddle with it and potentially create something that doesn’t work quite as well. The factor that influences you to re-work your spear might be the appearance of animals that run too fast to catch and skewer. Thus you have a reason to “fix” the spear.

Sometimes I worry about the easy I go along with something just because it’s the way I’ve always done something. If I take the same road to the store every day, what am I missing by not taking the other path? But why take the other path when experience tells me my tried and trusted road gets me there in one piece?

But that’s a slightly different question isn’t it? An appeal to tradition is saying “we do X because we’ve always done X.” Not straying off the beaten path is more like risk management. And that is a different situation altogether, risk management is about controlling variables; calculating what is the best course of action to get what you want while risking the least amount. Appeal to tradition involves none of that.
But on the surface it does look a little similar. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons we’re so quick to use appeal to tradition to justify actions. We’re confusing it with risk management.

Tradition has a certain power of identification for people. We recognize ourselves by the traditions we keep. We feel that if we didn’t eat turkey instead of hot dogs that would alter our cultural heritage. After all, our cultural heritage is made up of traditions. So you might say “look, I don’t like turkey either, but eating turkey is what makes us Canadian, if we started eating hot dogs, then who would we be?” Well if you are what you eat…

But that’s rather silly reasoning, for example many Canadians consider hockey to be culturally important tradition, yet there are many Canadians out there who have no interest in hockey (not me though) do we consider them lesser Canadians for not liking hockey? I wouldn’t, but for the sake of argument, pretend I do.

You’re a lesser Canadian because you don’t like hockey.
Because Canadians have always liked hockey.
Being Canadian is synonymous with liking hockey.
Because Canadians have always liked hockey.

How does that sound? Problematic. So the next time you’re eating turkey and you’d rather have a hot dog don’t be afraid of violating tradition, for it is an illogical reason to do anything. Eat hot dogs and be merry.

Happy Holidays Everyone.

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  • Ethan Clow

    Ethan Clow, born and raised in the Vancouver area, is best known in the skeptical community as Ethan the Freethinking Historian, co-host of Radio Freethinker, a skeptical podcast and radio show on CiTR in Vancouver. And as the former Executive Director of the Centre for Inquiry Vancouver. Ethan graduated with a B.A. in History from UBC in the fall of 2009 and has an active role with skeptical movements in Vancouver and British Columbia. He was an executive member of the UBC Freethinkers, a campus club that promotes skepticism and critical thinking. He still maintains a close relationship with the UBC Freethinkers and helps plan events and organizes skeptical activism as best he can. Currently he works for the Centre for Inquiry as the Executive Director of CFI Vancouver.