Reimagined and Revamped. Fighting the spread of nonsense often feels like a Sisyphean task. However, the joy is in making the information available, not the hope of conversion.

Wright Brothers Fallacy

I am leaving for Europe for a couple of weeks. I have a bunch of posts blocking up my the space in my brain, I guess it will have to wait. So until then, I want to get out the easy one. Its my blog so I am allowed to name my own fallacies for future reference.

Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of lists available around that already define and specify various logical arguments, some specific and some general. It is truly worth it to read these and learn them to be able to recognize nonsense when you see it. It truly makes purveyors of nonsense back down very often.

There is a situation which occurs often when discussing a new product or service. I have covered a number of products on this blog that are new to the marketplace. I have also covered instances where someone or a company is developing a process or technology. But, most often the product, technology, or service makes it to these pages because they are demonstrably worse than incumbent technology or product.

Stalwart defenders of these products, upon being shown the demonstrable errors of their contentions, will inevitably end up with something to the effect of: The Wright Bros. were also told their plane wouldn't work. Or they point out that cell phones were worse than they are now being bigger, with less range, and spotty service.

The fallacy lies in the temporal comparison. When a new product is worse than other devices currently available, the defenders of the product will usually whip out a reference to the Wright Bros (its a similar effect as Godwin's Law). But the invention of the Wright Brothers had characteristics that were unavailable to other technologies at the time (car, horse, train, etc). Same went for the huge cell phones of the 1970's, they were expensive and big, but they delivered a portable phone solution unavailabel by any other technology. Most often people defending a poor technology are trying to make the case that a 1970's cell phone is the best technolgy out there as a bunch of people with iPhones pass them, or they claim to have made a biplane with the claim that it will sell a lot of of them as a jet plane perfroms some tricks above in the air.

So instead of understanding how the actual specifications of the product (or claims of a technology) don't hold up to things that are currently available, they simply reject logic and hide in this fallacy.

The Wright Brothers fallacy has some aspects of an appeal to novelty. Just because a product or service is new, doesn't mean it is actually better than incumbent technology. An apples to apples comparison must be made. If none of the claims of the product are actually better than incumbent technology there is simply no reason to believe it will sell, no reason to believe it will make any money.

There are many products that fall outside of the Wright Brothers fallacy. For example consider True Religion Jeans. These jeans sell like hot cakes. They also cost hundreds of dollars. Why? They are just jeans. There is no specific claim that this company makes about their product. There is no specification, no incumbent product that it is supposed to be better than. Here is the closest they come:

True Religion's signature lowrise 'Disco Becky Big T' style for women in stretch denim made of 99% cotton, 1% spandex. Natural Big T thread combination. These jeans feature unique Swarovski crystals which are used as buttons and rivets.
All style, all fad. This is not a product for which the Wright Bros. fallacy can be applied to reasonably. But products like cars (particularly technologies for cars like fuel cells or hybrids), power packs, new TV technologies and so forth can be.

THe wright brothers fallacy is used in the same vain as the Galileo Fallacy. Sure, perhaps the Wright Bros were laughed at or told the plane wouldnt work, but they were also making something that claimed to be better than incumbent technology (flying as a feature!). Just because skeptics are poking fun at a new worthless device, that doesn't make it better, it also has to be better.


On 9/10/08, 9:02 PM , Scott said...

I should note the True Religion jeans (and premium denim in general) do make certain other claims, a lot of them de facto claims of by being "super premium denim", as opposed to premium denim, denim, or god help you jeans.

Mostly this will manifest in the following ways:

Branded hardware (down to the rivets in most cases)

Decorated pocket linings

Fancy back pocket stitching

very nicely hemmed, almost always alterable

lifetime warranty (no they won't say it that would be gauche, but so much as murmur of discontent, and it is exchangevile)

higher quality fabric, here a moment please, the fabric quality is really hard to describe, buyers for billion dollar companies still rely on touch and feel, trust me when I say that time and effort can make smooth lickable fabric

the fit is better, this is something most discount brands can't seem to bother with

handstitched by people who could be doing better jobs (aka no child labor, and 2nd world or better companies)

Ok ok, it is a valid question whether or not you want to pay for that. Still you discount the difference between a steak at ponderosa, and a steak at a world-class steakhouse. They may describe the steak in the exact same language, but it is a different steak (anything not specified will be dropped from cheaper recipes of course, so it is a giant game of copy the mole) and it is treated differently all along the way. How much that matters? That is up to debate, but don't assume that a company that can claim premium denim and not be laughed at (and Tru is so very close to being laughed at), is selling the same as the Chinese levi straus signature jeans. They merely lack ability to describe the difference without tons of background knowledge, and have the enviable benefit of being able to demonstrate the actual results/benefits.

Seriously try an actual pair of super premium denim, there is a difference that will stand up to blind tagless test again and again. Whether or not it is worth it to you to have a pair of jeans cost that much is up to you. But be careful of labels pitched to consumers that don't mark differences. Franzia after all has "vinter's select" wines with "hints of pepper" that doesn't mean it is any good (yes I am aware of the study where they tricked various wine drinkers with price tags, franzia is still crap). Labeling is just too easy to copy and excellence too easy to demonstrate in things like food and apparel. That doesn't mean people don't try, but you can get angus beef at McDonald's. Anything one tries to use as a watchword for quality will be destroyed, so most places don't even try. They depend on the class they aspire to, and people rating them highly.

In fact in general one finds that adjectives are normally distributed with the highest concetration around mid priced restaurants with something to prove, and the lowest at the top end, and the bottom. (Which makes some sense the familiarity with names a CEO uses follows roughly the same pattern, board members are first name, middle management is full name, and the security guard is also first name.)

On 10/5/08, 10:33 AM , Techskeptic said...

In reading through your post I notice something in particular:

None of the benefits you list are measurable.

Which is why all of the things you mention, steak, wine, restaurants, etc are really not applicable to the Wright Bros. Fallacy becuase its an issue or matter of taste rather than a quantity.

However devices that claim to be 'better' than something often require. A quick jaunt through this blog will show you a variety of devices that are demonstrably not better than other technologies or devices.