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Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Logical fallacies and the environment: appeal to tradition

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antiq2“We’ve always done it this way!” is often invoked as a reason to refuse to change.  It can be quite appealing because it is tied to identity politics, for instance “My people have always believed this” or “my family has always voted liberal”.  But it does not, of itself, constitute a logical argument and is considered a logical fallacy (Argumentum ad antiquitatem is the fancy name of the fallacy).

As the slide on the left shows, the fact that something is traditional is not, of itself, a guarantee that it is a good thing.  Running the bulls at Pamplona, corridas, and rodeos have come under fire recently because of animal welfare considerations.  An appeal to tradition, in this case, means that the justification for the practice is the need to uphold tradition; in other words, “this is what we do; we wouldn’t be who we are if we didn’t do this”.  However, this is not a valid argument when moral standards (say, genital mutilation) or circumstances (eg, a watershed becoming urbanized) change.

“This dike has always protected us from floods” is said by people at risk of flooding who are reluctant to relocate or reinforce a dike.  This is a valid argument only under static conditions: the dike is a solid as always, and outside conditions have not changed.  But it is a fallacious argument when storms become more violent because of climate change, or when conditions upriver have changed (say, from forestry to open land, or from farmlands to suburban developments).

This is a fallacy that often appears in climate change discussions.  “Climate change is real: look, this type of butterfly never used to come this far north before.”  Well, maybe it did, but no one noticed (too few observers in the past); or maybe they have moved north because another butterfly disappeared; or maybe a freak strom has blown them in.  An anecdote such as this is not sufficient to demonstrate the effects or existence of climate change.

But conversely, saying that the weather has always changed, or that there was a worse drought in the thirties, does not disprove the existence of climate change.  Only a statistical analysis of the odds can throw some light on climate change.  Statements such as “the odds of such a storm occuring here are less than one in a million, and may be an indication that the climate has changed” are more credible.

The expressions “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” or “Leave well enough alone” often accompany an appeal to tradition.  True as these sayings may be sometimes, preventative maintenance may well be justified sometimes (the New Orleans dikes weren’t broken before Hurricane Katrina).

None of this demonstrates that tradition is necessarily flawed, however (this is the opposite fallacy, appeal to novelty).  In environmental assessment work the concept of Traditional Environmental Knowledge (TEK for short) is extremely important. TEK embodies indigenous knowledge of sustainability of natural resources, biological diversity, or past rare events such as floods or volcanoes.  It usually relies on a tradition of recounting stories (usually oral ones) based on first hand observations.  For instance, sustainable forest harvesting on Haida Gwaii is largely based on TEK.  Robins have been seen in the arctic, but there is no word in Inuktituk for robin; this is seen as valid information about climate provided from TEK; in contrast to the butterfly example above, lack of a word in a traditional language indicates absence over millenia.

However, appeal to tradition runs squarely into the concept of shifting baselines, coined by fisheries expert Daniel Pauly.  The problem is that tradition may not be that old; every generation has its own expectations of what is normal.  Old maritime fishing stories recount how abundant cod was fifty years ago, as opposed to now; but records indicate that the abundance of cod fifty years ago was actually relative, as there was still much more cod one hundred years ago, and so.  The normal situation – the baseline – is simply how things appeared to one generation when young, but does not indicate a static situation, but rather a shifting one; because of the short time horizon, this is different from TEK.

antiqu

Note: As instructors we’re expected to instill in our students critical thinking abilities. So this semester I included in my Environmental Issues class a review of some common logical fallacies with examples taken from the environmental scene. Much to my surprise, I couldn’t find such a collection through a Google search. So I started crafting my own by collecting examples of logical fallacies that occur in environmental news and discussions. Previous post in the series: the slippery slope.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Written by enviropaul

March 21, 2016 at 5:15 pm

One Response

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  1. […] Note: As instructors we’re expected to instill in our students critical thinking abilities. So this semester I included in my Environmental Issues class a review of some common logical fallacies with examples taken from the environmental scene. Much to my surprise, I couldn’t find such a collection through a Google search. So I started crafting my own by collecting examples of logical fallacies that occur in environmental news and discussions. Previous post in the series: appeal to tradition. […]


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