The Appeal to Novelty Fallacy: Why New Isn’t Necessarily Better

Appeal to Novelty

 

The appeal to novelty is a logical fallacy that occurs when something is assumed to be either good or better than something else, simply because it’s perceived as being new and novel. For example, a person using the appeal to novelty might claim that a certain exercise plan that a celebrity just came up with is better than traditional alternatives, simply because it’s newer.

This kind of reasoning frequently plays a role in people’s thinking, and is often used by people for rhetorical purposes, so it’s important to understand it. As such, in the following article you will learn more about the appeal to novelty, and see how you can respond to this fallacy effectively.

 

Examples of appeals to novelty

Examples of appeals to novelty appear in a variety of domains. This includes, for instance, the push for rapid adoption of new drugs and medical devices in the healthcare industry, despite the fact that the new treatments might be inferior to existing alternatives in terms of factors such as efficacy and risk. Furthermore, this includes a similar push for the adoption of nanotechnology-based solutions in a wide range of fields, despite the potential inferiority of these solutions compared to existing ones.

The use of appeals to novelty in such contexts affects people’s decision-making on various scales, from more personal choices, such as what medication to take, to large-scale policies that affect whole countries, such as whether to change some regulatory status quo.

One notable example of a context where appeals to novelty often play a role is fad diets, which are dubious diets that promise a seemingly “magical” solution to weight loss, but are almost always scientifically-unsound and potentially dangerous, and fail to improve on older, better-established solutions to weight loss. In particular, proponents of fad diets tend to promote them in the short-term by emphasizing, among other factors, their novelty and how recently they were developed, until these diets are, in turn, replaced by newer ones a short while later.

Other groups often take advantage of appeals to novelty for rhetorical purposes in a similar manner. For example, the advertising industry often uses appeals to novelty in order to persuade people to buy products, by suggesting, either implicitly or explicitly, that the novelty of those products makes them inherently better. An example of what an appeal to novelty might look like in such context is the following:

Advertisement: Buy our new product, which offers a novel solution to this old problem.

Here, the advertisement focuses not on the effectiveness of the new solution, or on any of its other benefits, but rather on its novelty, even though that novelty doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily better than the existing alternatives alternatives.

Note: a related concept is chronological snobbery, which is a logical fallacy that occurs when someone assumes that scientific, cultural, and philosophical concepts from later periods of time are necessarily superior to those from earlier eras. This fallacy is based on the assumption that “the ever‐increasing amount of knowledge in society naturally and perpetually replaces all outdated, disproven ideas with updated, better‐justified beliefs, therefore making old ideas incorrect or irrelevant simply because they are old”.

 

Understanding the appeal to novelty

The appeal to novelty is a type of an informal logical fallacy, because there is an issue with its main underlying premise, and namely with the assumption that ‘new’ necessarily means ‘better’.

In practice, appeals to novelty generally involve two main lines of argument:

  • Overestimating things that are perceived or painted as “new”. For example: “if you’re trying to lose weight, then you should follow the latest trends in dieting; they always work best”.
  • Underestimating things that are perceived or painted as “old”. For example: “if you’re trying to lose weight, then you shouldn’t use the old-school methods; they’re never as good as the latest techniques”.

Furthermore, in many cases, appeals to novelty involve both these lines of argument simultaneously, when the new and old things are compared directly. For example: “if you’re trying to lose weight, make sure to follow the latest trends in dieting; you want to use the most modern regimens you can find, not the old stuff which probably doesn’t work”.

However, it’s important to note that novelty can in fact be intrinsically advantageous in some cases, such as when old approaches have failed to work entirely and there is no risk associated with trying a new approach. As such, this kind of reasoning is fallacious only when people base their argument on the novelty of a certain thing, without properly explaining why this novelty is beneficial.

Finally, it’s also important to keep in mind that just because an argument in favor of a certain thing is a fallacious appeal to novelty, that doesn’t necessarily mean that its conclusion is wrong, meaning that the novel thing in question might actually be better than the older alternatives. Assuming otherwise is fallacious in itself, and is a common pattern of reasoning known as the fallacy fallacy.

Note: the appeal to novelty is sometimes referred to by other names, such as argumentum ad novitatem.

 

Why people believe and use appeals to novelty

Appeals to novelty are often used unintentionally by people, for various reasons. These reasons can be divided into two main categories:

  • ‘Hot’, emotional motivations. For example, a common emotional motivation is people’s need to feel in control and be capable of taking action, which can cause them to want to believe that a novel solution might be what they were looking for, after older solutions have failed to work.
  • ‘Cold’, rational motivations. For example, a common rational motivation is people’s tendency to rely on their past experiences, which may have taught them that, in general, newer things tend to be better developed than older ones.

When people use appeals to novelty intentionally, they often take advantage of these motivations, in order to make their argument more persuasive to those they are addressing it to. For example, someone using an appeal to novelty to sell an unproven medical treatment might play on people’s desperate hope for something that will help them deal with a so-far untreatable chronic condition.

 

How to respond to the appeal to novelty

The main way to respond to an appeal to novelty is to point out the fallacious reasoning that it contains—namely the idea that “new” necessarily means “better”—and explain why this sort of reasoning is problematic.

To achieve this, you should generally start by pointing out, to the person using this fallacy, the fact that their argument relies only on the fact that what they’re arguing for is novel, without properly justifying why this novelty is beneficial or even relevant.

After this, it is often helpful to ask the other person to justify their stance, either by explaining why they believe that novelty is beneficial and relevant in this case, or by modifying their original argument to account for this issue some other way.

Asking them to explain their reasoning, rather than just arguing against it, often makes for a more productive discussion, because it helps the other person see that you care about what they have to say, and because it can help them internalize the errors in their reasoning. Furthermore, in some cases, this might lead you to discover that the other person was right all along, but simply didn’t phrase their argument carefully enough the first time around.

If the other person cannot justify their original argument after you point out the appeal to novelty, then that means that their reasoning is likely fallacious, and you can move on to focus on countering it directly. To do this, you need to help them understand why their novelty argument isn’t relevant to the discussion, or why it’s incorrect to assume that newer things are necessarily better.

A good way to highlight why this sort of thinking is fallacious is to use counterexamples. For example, you can bring up the fact that newer medical solutions are often viewed as relatively risky, until sufficient evidence has been collected about their efficacy and side effects.

The closer your examples will be to the discussion at hand, the more effective they will generally be. This is because the closer the examples are, the easier it is for the people involved to see the similarity between them. For instance, if you are discussing a fad diet, providing an example for other fad diets that failed will generally be more helpful than providing an example that relies on an unrelated technological trend.

Note: when responding to appeals to novelty, there are two useful principles to keep. First, there is the principle of charity, which denotes that when interpreting someone’s statement, you should assume that the best possible interpretation of that statement is the one that the speaker meant to convey. Second, there is Hanlon’s razor, which in this case suggests that you should assume that the person who is using the appeal to novelty is doing so unintentionally, unless there is a compelling reason to think otherwise.

 

How to avoid using the appeal to novelty yourself

It’s important to remember that you might also be using the appeal to novelty fallacy, either when making decisions, or when discussing relevant topics with other people.

To identify cases where you do this, pay attention to situations where you mention the concept of novelty, and ask yourself whether you are using novelty in order to support something, without properly explaining why this novelty is relevant or beneficial. Then, see if you can justify your stance, and if you can’t, then try to detach the concept of novelty from your argument, and reassess your reasoning without it.

It can sometimes help to approach this process similarly to how you would if someone else had used the fallacy. For example, you can actively ask yourself questions about your reasoning regarding novelty, or you can point out similar counterexamples and ask yourself whether they apply when it comes to your argument.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • The appeal to novelty is a logical fallacy that occurs when something is assumed to be either good or better than something else, simply because it’s perceived as being new and novel.
  • For example, a person using the appeal to novelty might claim that a certain exercise plan that a celebrity just came up with is better than traditional alternatives, simply because it’s newer.
  • While novelty can be relevant to the discussion and can be advantageous in some cases, it is fallacious to assume that novelty is always beneficial.
  • The main way to respond to an appeal to novelty is to point out the fallacious reasoning that it contains—namely the idea that “new” necessarily means “better”—and explain why this sort of reasoning is problematic.
  • When responding to an appeal to novelty, it can often be beneficial to use relevant counterexamples which show that newer things aren’t necessarily better, and to ask the person using this fallacy to justify their reasoning.