Attacking the Man

November 5, 2009

Now is the time to initiate a discussion of one of the great stand-by rhetorical tricks in politics, law, and advertising: the ad hominem argument. Bloggers love to throw the term ‘ad hominem‘ around, charging one enemy with lobbing ad hominem arguments, and then falling subject to nasty counter-charges that they are the ones instead who have made a “personal attack.”

It is clear to me, at least, that a good portion of those who throw out the charge of ad hominem often don’t understand the fallacy.  Joe Romm falls for the prank in his recent post in which he comes to Al Gore’s defense. Romm spends a fair number of words explaining that Al Gore isn’t poised to become the world’s first carbon billionaire.

My thinking? So what if he is? Whether Gore is or isn’t poised to profit off of climate change is a distraction, an irrelevance, a stupid sophistry used by ideologically-driven hacks to push their agenda.

The ad hominem is one of many fallacies of relevance. I spoke earlier about fallacies of relevance in the Cherry Ping Pong thread. Ultimately, fallacies of relevance are tricky li’l buggers, because some claims that smell like a fallacy of relevance are, in fact, relevant. What’s tricky is that when one encounters a fallacy of relevance, what has to be demonstrated is the relevance of the charge, not that such-and-such a charge is true. One has to demonstrate that it matters that Little Bunny Foo Foo is an alcoholic. One can’t just demonstrate that Foo Foo is an alcoholic.

So there’s that. And then there are other confusions as well…

First things first, note that an ad hominem is not a “personal attack.” True, it literally is an argument against the person, but that’s not the same thing as a personal attack. I can viciously attack someone and make a great argument. You can read all about such attacks in this adorably fantastic overview of the many ways you can say “fuck you” and “you’re an asshole” without committing an ad hominem.

Second, note that simply pointing out that Gore is going to make a heap of cash on his book, or that he only might make a heap of cash, or that he won’t make a heap of cash at all, has nothing to do with the strength or weakness of Gore’s argument. Sure, it might point to ulterior motives on Gore’s part; but it just as easily might not. It might also demonstrate that he has such a strong belief that his view is the right view, that his view will generate many new jobs, that he has put his money where his mouth is. Could go either way. Might even be a coincidence.

So what would it take to indict Gore’s arguments by appealing to his person? It’d take a demonstration of relevance. In the case of climate science, I think that’s basically impossible, just as it’s impossible to undermine Steve McIntyre’s arguments by appealing to his external funding and background in mining, just as it’s impossible to undermine the arguments of environmentalists by speculating about the origins of their political worldview, just as it’s impossible to undermine Roger’s arguments by calling him bad names. It’s a wild, spinning merry-go-round of attack politics.

At the same time, it is important that we get our facts and our arguments from reputable sources. Just as we wouldn’t accept a medical diagnosis from a wacked-out meth-head, so too ought we not to accept facile political mouthings-off from unqualified interpreters of law. We must read and adjudicate for ourselves. Dishonest arguments, or poorly supported arguments, can be handily discarded.

And here, dear readers, is where it gets troubling. Very, very often, attempts to impugn the credibility of critics boil down to accusations that those critics are wacked-out meth-heads, or something like that. Problem is, we must then all make a determination about whether their claims were made in good faith, about whether they are qualified to make those claims. In all of these cases, our best alternative is simply to ignore the vitriol and attend to the argument at hand.

More problematically, when the above happens, the political intermingles with the rational. When Joe Romm or Grist or anyone spends time defending Gore on these grounds — on grounds that he will not profit, or that he will donate all of his proceeds to charity, or that he is merely reporting the scientific record — they do not undermine the ad hominem fallacy but instead reinforce its seeming relevance.

Of course, they are acting politically, and politics is dirty. Romm and Grist would be wrong not to defend Gore against these fallacious charges. Equally so, those smeared by Romm would be wrong not to defend their personal reputations. But the question of whether it is wise to argue against an ad hominem is based on a calculation about how one’s position will be interpreted in the face of this information, not on an assessment of the strength of the claims. In the end, this screws with everyone’s capacity to get at the right answers, to arrive at acceptable policy conclusions.

What does this mean for the rest of us? It means that we ought not to put much stock in objections from either side when some party protests that X stands to make billions of dollars from a given project, or that X is a rock star, or that X is an ignorant booze-bag. It is sometimes important to know that X stands to gain, as it may call into question the sincerity with which he utters his argument, but that is an entirely separate matter from a determination of whether his argument holds water.

Still don’t get what I’m saying? I have only the most endearing non-ad hominem reply:

Fuck off, you ignorant booze-bag.


  1. Of course, those of us who are predisposed to value rational, empirically-based arguments over illogical, fallacious arguments agree with you. However, the ad hominem and other logical fallacies you highlight are part of modern political discourse – they are not going away. Logical fallacies are convenient tools for the issue advocate to do away with arguments they don’t want to engage in (for whatever reason). It is always easier to claim “Cheney is the devil” or “Obama is a socialist” and dismiss their point of view than engage the merits of their arguments. Similarly, the misuse of the term “ad hominem” in the blogosphere is a convenient tool to avoid a substantive debate. It is much easier to cry “AD HOMINEM!! AD HOMINEM!!” than make a logical argument.

    While we ought not to put too much stock in objections from either side when some party protests that X stands to make billions of dollars from a given project, the fact is we do. Symbolic politics matter. A pragmatic question for the philosopher: There are innumerable issues that we are faced with on a daily basis. We all have limits to our time and focus of attention; we can’t possible investigate and evaluate every argument that we encounter. We all need shortcuts. What is wrong with relying on the judgments of those we trust (or dismissing the arguments of those we don’t), as long as we are open to revision in the future?

  2. Dave: fuck off, you ignorant booze-bag.

  3. More seriously, you’re right. I guess I take comfort in thinking that I can sort out the rhetoric and slime a little bit better because I can identify these issues. I’m not sure I don’t sometimes fall prey to them, but I do think that keeping them in mind can help sort out the good and bad stuff.

    Also, I definitely think we need to rely on the judgment of those we trust. One way of establishing whether someone is a good judge comes by determining if that person is making good arguments. If they’re blasting off at the mouth about this and that, if they’re offering fallacious reasoning on all range of matters, then we may want to revise our view of their judgement; or at least start thinking a bit more skeptically about their arguments.

  4. Ben- thanks for the link. Given the low average sense of humor on the net let me specify that in my vocabulary ‘pop psychology’ is a mild pejorative so please all do take that blog of mine as tongue-in-cheek.

    For me the threshold of relevance about ad-hom’s is when the (pop psychology) considerations take everything over and people drone on and on about what source of evil I am presumed to be.

    One would have hoped that the great collapse of Usenet would have taught people how boring can it be when all we read about is how devilish anybody not agreeing with somebody is presumed to be. Yawn.

    Anyway…I think we have one new shortform next to ROTFL and IMHO: ‘FOYIBB’ 😎

  5. No problem. Happy to oblige.

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