To make an argument by appealing to the novelty of an idea— to the innovation it brings to a certain area—is not necessarily wrong. The visionary thinker Alvin Toffler coined the wonderful phrase nostalgia for the future, referring to his appreciation of the adventure the future promises through the desire many of us have to merge with ‘the new’ that is still developing (in statu nascendi).
Here, however, we will focus on the fallacy of the appeal to novelty (argumentum ad novitatem). We will, therefore, underline the situations when it is inappropriate, irrelevant or inconclusive to invoke novelty. We will thus help our readers understand the nuances which make certain arguments easy to identify as sophisms, deliberate fallacies, created for manipulative purposes.
This type of fallacy is much newer than the appeal to tradition or the appeal to authority, which the English philosopher, Francis Bacon, identified in 1620 in his work “The New Organong” as “idols”, meaning obstacles in the way of scientific knowledge, generated by the thinking process.
The obsession with novelty belongs to the ideology of progress, a byproduct of late modernity. This ideology is based on a prejudice, a superstition even: everything new is superior simply on account of being new—in short, the new is superior to the old. Hence, one of the main tenets of progressivism is that the history of mankind evolves from the past towards the future, from old to new and from inferior to superior. Regarding this value orientation, modernity has introduced a 180-degree shift. We went from the “obsession with origins”, explored by anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss—from the idealisation of tradition and the “cult of antiquity”—to the obsession with actuality, the pride of being “recent”, the desire for change in all areas and a preoccupation with the projection of the future.
Here are some criteria to consider in order to identify the fallacy of the appeal to novelty.
Persuasion at all costs
When one appeals to novelty only to convince an audience, without being able to actually prove that that novelty is also good or beneficial for a certain situation, when this pseudo-argument is not accompanied or reinforced by other arguments accepted by the audience, then we may suspect that the speaker is only doing a rhetorical exercise.
For instance, American president, Donald Trump, in a speech held in front of the General Assembly of the UN, used this rhetorical trick to depreciate the objective tendency of the globalisation of human civilisation, suggesting that globalisation is, among others, the invention of criminals involved in human trafficking.
Furthermore, Trump claims that globalism belongs to the past: “Globalism has exerted a religious pull over past leaders, causing them to ignore their own national interests.” Therefore, he tied globalism to the past to create, by contrast, the impression that his ideology, “Trumpism”, is a novelty, something progressive, which has overcome “the errors of the past”. Finally, Trump drew the conclusion he was aiming at from the very beginning: “The future does not belong to globalists. The future belongs to patriots.”
In this context, the appeal to novelty turned into a rhetorical device and, therewith, a highly efficient means of persuasion. This is used as a substitute for certain missing arguments.
The apostle Paul has also pointed out the danger of persuasion by novelty, when warning the Christians in Ephesus, in his epistle, not to let themselves be influenced “by every wind of teaching”. By this metaphor he meant new thinking “trends” which wafted deceivingly in the time’s spirit: “Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming” (Ephesians 4:14).
The intention to flatter
When the appeal to novelty is done with the obvious intention to flatter an audience or a camp to the detriment of others, to win them over for a certain purpose, belief, or mission, then we may again reasonably suspect we are dealing with a manipulating sophism.
For instance, in 2003, when the United States was trying to form an alliance to enter Iraq, American vice-president, Dick Cheney, and defense minister, Donald Rumsfeld, suddenly cancelled the pejorative meaning of the phrase “Eastern Europe”—a phrase which had come to be associated with the “empire of evil” and “the former socialist concentration camp”—by replacing it with the expression “the New Europe”. It was thus turned into a phrase in contrast to the “Old Europe”—“Western Europe” referring to that part of Europe which was reluctant when it came to the involvement of the North Atlantic Alliance in military operations in Iraq.
All of a sudden, the countries no longer wishing to partner with the U.S. became “old”, losing some of their prestige and legitimacy, while the former communist countries, which had only recently joined NATO, became “new” – a sort of sprouts of the future. And this only because they had agreed to participate in the American project.
In contrast to this rhetoric of flattery, we witness Paul’s attitude, worthy of a true missionary, when confronted with the Athenians’ eagerness to learn novelties for novelty’s sake: “Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting?’ (…) All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas” (Acts 17:19, 21). Paul then spoke to them about the God they did not know, the one from everlasting and, when the Athenian audience expressed distrust in his sayings, “Paul left the Council” (Acts 17:33).
There are contexts where it is improper to present novelty as an advantage, because this would not be a value in itself. For instance, when it comes to certain moral or religious aspects, there is rarely room for “innovation”. It would be improper to say that a biblical prophecy is ‘too old’ to be taken into consideration.
In a nutshell
This fallacy consists of inappropriately or hastily declaring a certain tenet to be correct, acceptable or superior to others just because it is new. This is a temptation of progressive thinking, which rejects anything that has to do with ancient times, traditions, and the status-quo, and is a tributary to a particular prejudice: the new is superior to the old. This represents the counterpart of another prejudice, which is found in the fallacy called “the appeal to tradition”, in which what is old and verified is preferable or superior to the new.
In the case of the appeal to novelty, the error occurs when a particular novelty is invoked in cases in which the old-new relation is not relevant, or in cases in which the benefit of that novelty has not yet been proved. For instance, in the moral field there is no room for “innovations” that would support the argument that “common sense is out of fashion, while nerve is in” or that “we are postmodern, therefore we need to relativise the Christian moral sensibility”.
Dumitru Borţun is a university professor at the Faculty of Communication and Public Relations, part of the National School of Political and Administrative Studies (SNSPA).