Argumentum ad Antiquitatem

The argmentum ad antiquitatem is sometimes better known as the appeal to tradition or the appeal to common practice.

If you’ve ever heard anyone say, “I know this is right because that’s the way we’ve always done it.” You’ve heard the appeal to common practice, the argumentum ad antiquitatem in action.

In EMS, the appeal to common practice is everywhere. So much of what we do, from c-spine immobilization to intubation to oxygen administration, is based on the idea that we’ve just always done it that way.

Any time new research suggests that we we may have been doing it wrong all along, the appeal to common practice rears it’s ugly head. The longer we’ve been in EMS, the harder it can be to admit that, perhaps, we were doing it wrong all along. So, instead, we fight it. The appeal to common practice works its way into our language in sneaky ways.

“We can’t just show up tomorrow and deice that we aren’t going to do that anymore can we?”

“Patient’s don’t really change that much over time.”

“This flies in the face of three decades of tradition.”

“Maybe you should get a little more experience under your belt before you start talking about changing everything.”

“There’s a standard of care that we have to think about here.”

“Our citizens demand this level of treatment.”

The truth of the matter is that the appeal to common practice is a fallacy. It was identified as an argumentative fallacy in the time of Socrates and it remains a fallacy today. Just because our behaviors or actions correlate with some past or present tradition doesn’t mean that they are correct. It only means that they way we are doing it happens to be the way everyone else has already done it.

Sometimes that’s a good thing. Sometimes it’s not. We have to decide for ourselves.

When decisions get complicated, the appeal to common practice is a powerful thing to overcome. It’s always helpful to remember that the old way of thinking may have been flat out incorrect in the first place. It may have been based on a faulty premiss or an old assumption that has already been proven untrue.

If we’re doing something for the right reasons, no appeal to common practice is necessary.

I’d like to hear what you think about that.

Comments

  1. The main problem: to use our experience as evidence, we need to know what the results of our actions are. And we only know the results when it obviously kills the patient within the minutes before we dump them at the hospital. If it kill them in half an hour, or two days, or two weeks, or permanently worsens their ejection fraction, or leaves them unable to walk, or simply forces them to suffer more than they needed to — we never know, and clear from the call thinking this is one more datapoint proving that our methods “work.” This is the whole reason wise men came up with the methodologically rigorous scientific method. Of course, people still have to listen to the science…

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