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Appeals to ancient wisdom – trusting traditional trickery

May 15, 2012
If a remedy for your problem has been around for a long time, will it work, or is that a red flag?

How to recognise this tactic

People who use this tactic try to persuade you that a certain explanation, treatment or model must be correct because it’s been around for a long time.

I don’t go in for ancient wisdom
I don’t believe just ‘cos ideas are tenacious it means they are worthy

Tim Minchin, Australian-British comedian/musician, 2009

Why do people use this tactic?

People turn to this tactic when they lack scientific evidence to support their models. They want tor persuade you that because the traditional view has persisted for a long time, it outweighs the scientific evidence. But unfortunately, these models usually persist for reasons that have little to do with their success in explaining the real world.

What’s wrong with this tactic

Believe it or not, there is no reason why an idea that’s been around for a long time should be correct. Many ancient models have been kept alive by anecdotal evidence, appeals to authority, wishful thinking, superstitions and other dubious strategies. They are not supported by the sort of real-world evidence that comes from controlled experiments or randomized controlled trials. The four humor theory, discussed in the Example below, illustrates how an erroneous ancient model succumbed to scientific investigation.

What to do when confronted by this tactic

Don’t be tempted to believe that the longevity of a model justifies its acceptance. It might help to keep in mind that blood-letting (based on the four humors model) was an accepted practice for centuries before modern medicine showed how harmful it is. Always ask for evidence that’s been gathered from real-world tests. If there’s none, the model is worthless. You can also check whether there are any systematic reviews of the model – try the Cochrane Collaboration for medical issues.

It’s a good idea to ask about a mechanism for the model. If there is none, or if the mechanism proposed refers to concepts and processes that are at odds with accepted science, the model is almost certainly worthless.

Variations and related tactics

This tactic is also known as the appeal to antiquity. It is sometimes regarded as a type of appeal to authority. I prefer to think of it as more an appeal to anecdotal evidence – people think that centuries of anecdotes pile up to provide evidence. But, as the old maxim says: the plural of anecdote is not data.


  • The 2nd century ‘four humor’ model of human temperaments promoted by Galen led to the practices of blood-letting and trepanation as treatments for disease. These practices were continued until the 19th century when the rise of scientific models in medicine showed that, far from being beneficial, they were actually harmful. Discoveries in anatomy and physiology had shown the the mechanism behind the four humor theory had no basis.
  • Traditional Chinese Medicine is based largely on the appeal to ancient wisdom. Here’s an excellent post from Steven Novella at Science-Based Medicine describing its pitfalls and showing how its purported mechanisms are completely divorced from reality.
  • Climate deniers use a form of this tactic when they point out that the earth’s climate has changed in the past and then claim that the present episode of change is nothing unusual. Ian Plimer implies this argument in the first two of the “101 questions” he proposed in his 2011 book How to get expelled from school: a guide to climate change for pupils, parents and punters. The evidence shows clearly that his argument is wrong, and that recent global warming and climate change definitely is unusual and furthermore it is caused by emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. The mechanism is well understood. The Australian Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency has issued a detailed reply to all of Plimer’s questions.
  • The New Age notion that Mayan calendars predict the end of the world on 12 December 2012 depends on an appeal to ancient wisdom. People who fall for this idea assume that the Mayans had knowledge we don’t and were able to predict the future. In fact, no such prediction was made, and if one had been, it would deserve no credibility. Various mechanisms have been suggested as causes of the apocalypse, but they too lack credibility.

WebDonuts Comics - Mayan 2012

Add to the list of examples by leaving a comment.

Tim Minchin’s lyrics are from White Wine in the Sun.
The Mayan cartoon is by Gruhn at WebDonuts

This is one of ScienceOrNot’s Science red flags. See them all here.

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