[Topics: Biology, Ethics, Logic, Fallacy]
It’s 1483 and People Still Think This Way?

What’s Wrong with the Current-year-based Shaming of Ideas and Practices, and How to Salvage It



Detail of Woodcut by P. Wohlgemuth, Adapted by André Koehne - current-year argument - Anti-vaxxers and vaccines - logic and argumentation

Detail of Woodcut by P. Wohlgemuth,
adapted by André Koehne

Imagine that someone in a disagreement with someone else opines that, “It is insane that you still think that way, in this day and age.” Now imagine that an individual on a television program exclaims, “How is this still happening?! It’s [current year]!” These two sentiments might strike you in one of a few ways. Perhaps one of them seems more plausible than the other, or you feel that one or both could be appropriate in some cases, but not others. Conversely, it may strike you that neither of these is a meaningful notion.

I intend to argue in this article, however, that both statements could be logical and that both statements could be fallacious, depending on the context. These are both forms of the ‘current-year argument.’ And, indeed, my reason for writing this article is that—while I am sympathetic to those who recognize the philosophical error being committed by most who use such arguments—I notice that folks often go too far in shooting down the concept of current-year-based-shaming of ideas and practices, when there are contexts that would make such exhortations logically sound.

First, I will give a precise account, with attention to the philosophical fundamentals of logic and argumentation, as to why these current-year statements are often (perhaps the majority of the time) meaningless and fallacious. Second, I will switch gears and describe cases wherein the statements could be legitimate, appropriate, and logically consistent.

Cases Where the Year is Irrelevant or Arbitrary:

In order to tease out where exactly this current-year-based shaming so often goes wrong, I will now write it out as a formal philosophical argument:

(1) I am aware of a particular issue.

(2) Prior to this year, humanity has had enough time to both sort out the solution to this particular issue, and for that solution to become commonly available and understood.

(3) In all of that time, humanity has figured out the solution to this particular issue.

(4) Some people or groups do not practice or understand the solution to this particular issue.

(5) By (2), (3), and (4), it is unreasonable, unexpected, or at very least a representation of poor time management on the part of humanity—that these people or groups think or act in the way that they do, now that it is this year.

There are a few potential contextual weaknesses to this line of reasoning, but I would say that the biggest flaws in this argument are (somewhat concealed) in premises (2) and (3). Starting with (3) as the more obvious mistake, the problem with this premise only becomes clear when you consider the fact that this argument is very often used in cases where the issue in question relates to an ethical or an aesthetic position. In other words, it often (granted: depending on your conception of moral and artistic ontologies and epistemologies) relates to a matter of opinion.

Portrait of the Writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov - current-year argument - Anti-vaxxers and vaccines - logic and argumentation

Portrait of the Writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky
by Vasily Perov

Let’s take up an example of a possible ‘current-year’ topic. Suppose that people are engaged in argument on the topic of whether students ought to read the novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky. What can be said about this topic that is objective? Here are a few possible options: one could point out the widespread influence of Dostoevsky’s works and ideas both on other artists and on important historical figures; another might mention that the works often contain politically charged and violent scenarios; and still another could point out the many sociological studies which demonstrate the benefits of reading literature to students’ development of empathy, and aptitude in other subject areas.

Putting even just these three bare facts in front of two different people, however, may result in different conclusions. They could even agree, but for different reasons: maybe one of them opposes the idea on moral grounds (because they are prudish and fear the possibility of negative influence on young people), while the other disregards all three facts but still opposes the idea (because they find any novel written before they were born to be uninteresting).

The sociological note, in fact, while it may be relevant to the vitality of arts and humanities education more generally, would not for most people constitute a reason that Dostoevsky (as opposed to any other writer) ought to be selected as part of a curriculum. Clearly mere analysis of the facts of this Dostoevsky case is not necessarily sufficient to settle the case, one way or the other.

But now imagine that one of those responders, perhaps the moralist, turns their position into a current-year argument by saying that humanity has already solved the issue of whether or not students should read the works of Dostoevsky, and that it is an embarrassment that anyone is still insisting they should be read by students in the current year. (In this case, I would gladly constitute an embarrassment.) Obviously, this person has confused their personal feelings on the matter with the solution to the matter, in premise (3). This is to say, as I wrote in one of my articles on moral realism, this person has merely deluded themselves that their opinion is a fact.

Such a position loses sight of the nuances of debate, discourse, and discussion. The issue, I suppose, is that this argument often crops up on subjects which are more politically and emotionally charged than whether students should read a 19th-century Russian novelist. Even then, however, any moderate and mature person should be capable of recognizing that people can disagree with them on the grounds of having different values, without necessarily being illogical.

But here is the kicker: even if the current-year argument pertains only to a matter of demonstrable fact (such as the scientific theories of heliocentrism, gravitation, or evolutionary biology), there is still a very real possibility that the argument would be faulty due to the challenge of education—of it actually taking time, effort, and innate conceptual infrastructure to impart the solution to every individual (not to mention, to solidify it into common policy and practice). The amount of time needed for such a process is unpredictable, as it depends upon the mental experience and faculties of every individual on the planet.

This amounts to a challenge to premise (2) as being faulty by virtue of being unknowable. Any opinion or action comes into existence from an extensive and complex chain of causation, and does not get supplanted instantly within the fuzzy, emotional, illogical minds of humans just because a more logical idea comes along—nor does it change automatically depending on what numbers are featured on a calendar.

Drawing of Velociraptor mongoliensis by Matt Martyniuk - current-year argument - Anti-vaxxers and vaccines - logic and argumentation

Drawing of Velociraptor Mongoliensis by Matt Martyniuk

Cases Where the Year is Relevant:

For this section, I will take up a couple of different current-year argument examples. To begin, consider someone (living contemporary to your lifetime) saying, “I can’t believe that, in this day and age, people are riding velociraptors to work.” Obviously this is a fairly extreme and ridiculous example, but bear with me; I’ll make it more grounded soon.

If this new hypothetical person is referring to an actual phenomenon of which you are both aware—people riding on the backs of velociraptors for the purpose of commuting—then I would contend that their use of the current-year argument to express their incredulity is entirely appropriate. Still, because it deals with a matter of astonishment rather than a matter of shaming, this particular example would require some rephrasing of the argument’s premises from how they were presented above:

(1′) I am aware of a particular phenomenon.

(2′) Prior to this year, humanity has had time to both cease having access to this particular phenomenon, and to enter a period wherein regaining access to it seemed impossible.

(3′) In all of that time, humanity had entered a period wherein accessing the phenomenon seemed impossible.

(4′) Some people or groups have access to this particular phenomenon.

(5′) By (2′), (3′), and (4′), it is surprising, superficially outrageous, or at very least unexpected for modern humanity—that these people or groups have access to this phenomenon, now that it is this year.

“Okay,” I can hear you thinking, “So what? Of course the argument can work if you change the argument. And this argument doesn’t shame anything; it just justifies surprise.” Well, first of all, you, mind of the reader, are right!

But, second of all, here’s the thing: I can think of an example of the first argument I presented (1-5), which also falls under the purview of the second argument (1′-5′). And this upcoming example, which does use the argument as a means of shaming or protesting, and which is by no means unique, achieves soundness as an argument in the same way that the velociraptor statement achieves logical consistency: by presenting a case where the year actually matters to the context.

Imagine someone presents a current-year argument by saying, “It is appalling that there are so many cases of whooping cough in the USA this year.”

Pertussis, or whooping cough, is a bacterial disease that causes extremely painful fits of aggressive coughing, with symptoms lasting across multiple months and thereby causing considerable pain (with a small but statistically notable risk of death). Between the first year of collecting case statistics on it in 1922 and the later 1940s, well over 100,000 cases were reported in the US annually.

Graph of Reported Pertussis Cases 1922-2016 by the CDC - current-year argument - Anti-vaxxers and vaccines - logic and argumentation

Graph by the CDC

In the late 1940s, however, a vaccine for pertussis (the development of which had begun over 30 years prior) came into common distribution in the US, and the number of cases began falling by massive numbers per year, eventually reaching a count between 1,000 and 5,000 reported cases per year for over 20 consecutive years from 1968 through 1992 (as tallied by the CDC). The level of education, the availability of the vaccine, and the public health infrastructure in the US for the latter half of the twentieth century was providing a steady decline in the incidence of pertussis that would have either continued to keep recorded cases low or else diminished them until none remained.

But what happened after that? Well, from the mid-1990s to the early-2010s, numerous controversies emerged in the media regarding vaccines. A few notable examples were concerns about thiomersal, an antifungal present in some vaccines which contained a small amount of mercury; concerns about the MMR vaccine, a multi-disease-fighting vaccine which one study linked to the onset of certain adverse mental and behavioral conditions; and concerns about ‘vaccine overload,’ the idea that a body can be harmed when the immune system is overwhelmed by too many vaccines. The concerns were, essentially, that such things would cause a vaccinated person to develop a new condition or disease, including everything from autism to ADHD to whichever disease the vaccine was intended to prevent.

Such concerns were eventually revealed to be unfounded, and in some cases willful fabrications.[1] But the damage was done. Vaccination rates fell, and subsequently disease rates rose. As it stands, the number of cases of pertussis reported annually in the US has not been below 10,000 since 2002, and has not been below 15,000 since 2008.

In the case of this vaccination example, there was a clearly defined downward trend in the incidence of pertussis from the late 1940s to the mid-1990s. But the intervention of certain self-interested and biased parties threw a wrench into that trend, and continue to do so on a smaller scale despite their falsehoods and lack of evidence having been exposed.  In this case, it matters to the argument itself where the current year falls on a chart of reported pertussis cases, and that this would be a year in which pertussis was a negligible threat if not for the machinations of self-interest and willful ignorance.

Why, then, does this example of the current-year argument not fall victim to the ‘problem of education’ described at the end of the previous section? Trivially, it does not fall victim to that problem because the public was already sufficiently educated for things to be otherwise; the unknowable period had already passed. It took a campaign of false education to undo and disrupt the existing trend.


Peasant Wedding Dance by Pieter Brueghel the Younger - current-year argument - Anti-vaxxers and vaccines - logic and argumentation

Peasant Wedding Dance by Pieter Brueghel the Younger

In most of the cases in which the current-year argument is inappropriately applied, its application is nevertheless perfectly understandable. Long years of holding to a position and trying to convince others can lead to a short-sighted frustration. At some point, even the most stalwart of level-headed idealists may wish to throw up their hands and exclaim, “How could this still be a matter for debate?” But use of the current-year argument being understandable doesn’t make its broad societal applications any more logical.

That said, if you have previously used such arguments in the past, or would like to use such arguments in the future, then the cause is not completely lost. But you must proceed with caution. Consider carefully whether the context you want to decry is truly unexpected or merely not preferable; is truly a moral outrage or merely an incomplete education process; and is truly a settled matter or merely a matter about which your own feelings are settled. Failing that, you may end up on no firmer logical ground than a person who says, “I can’t believe serfs are still rebelling against their lords. It’s 1483, for goodness sake!”


[1] During the period of initial concern in the mid-90s, thiomersal was removed from all vaccines; still, after significant study, the presence of thiomersal in a vaccine was found to have no causal link to any adverse effects. Similarly (but much more egregiously), the study linking the MMR vaccine to autism was later discredited as being a fabrication, and its author was removed from the medical register in the UK. Finally, the notion of ‘vaccine overload’ has never been formally proposed by any scientific organization, and relies on a wide array of misconceptions and misunderstandings of biology.

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[Topics: Biology, Ethics, Logic, Fallacy]
It’s 1483 and People Still Think This Way?

What’s Wrong with the Current-year-based Shaming of Ideas and Practices, and How to Salvage It

was last modified: February 16th, 2018 by Daniel Podgorski
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