Category Archives: Ad Hominem Abusive

A weary ad hominem

It’s an old trope to cast feminists as ugly.  The following inference seems to be either a direct ad hominem or a kind of debunking strategy on their claims.  The direct ad hominem runs as follows:

S is ugly

Therefore, the things S says aren’t worth our time

Notice that the direct argument has application to anyone, regardless of gender or politics.  The debunking argument works as a kind of explanation for the things S says — essentially, that they don’t track truths, but are mere expressions of resentment. The debunking argument, importantly, is uniquely targeting women who are feminists.

S is an ugly woman

Ugly woman have little chance with men

This causes them to be resentful

Out of resentment, they emote using terms like ‘patriarchy’ and ‘misogyny’.

Therefore, the things S says amount to mere emoting

The first form is a pretty clear error in relevance, the second is actually an instance of exactly the kind of sexist attitudes S’s feminism was criticizing.   But, hey, so it goes for those who rely on the ad hominem for their argumentative strategies — they hardly recognize when their use of it exemplifies precisely what the problem challenged is.   It seems to be in higher relief, though, with these cases applied to feminists.

Enter James Delingpole, over at Breitbart.  In some ways, I expect he’s just trolling (it’s a modified version of Poe’s Law — with right wing pigeons, you can’t tell whether they are serious, someone else lampooning them, or them embracing their worst sides just to get a rise out of you).  But, if the Poe point is right, who knows? In response to the Women’s Marches this last Sunday, he tweets:

Sheesh.  That’s just silly. Not just because folks were coming from well beyond DC. But here’s where things get bad, because Delingpole follows up the tweet with his article, and he puts a little edge on the issue.  Ad hominem edge, that is.

But this is self-evidently impossible. Very few of these shrieking munters – save the token celebrities – will ever find themselves in a position where they are able to fetch a man’s beer from his fridge because first they would have to find a man willing to share the same space with them.

Yep.  That’s what he wrote.  And the lesson he takes from it is that these folks are representative of what a Clinton Presidency would have looked like.

I think we owe those women who took to the streets across the world in their various pod groups a massive favour. They have reminded us what a Hillary presidency would have looked like every single day for at least four years.

Again, what’s it look like?

… the usual ragbag of leftist suspects, far too many of them blue hair, their whale-like physiques and terrifying camel-toes the size of the Grand Canyon.

Holy crap.  Let me take a breath here.  Does Breitbart have an editor over there?

The point I want to highlight how the use of one version of the ad hominem on feminists is a perfect picture of exactly the problem that feminists are out to address.  I think the only way someone could make this error so consistently is unless either (a) the person is trollling and is doing it intentionally for the sake of irritating a political opponent, (b) the person really doesn’t hear the critique as a critique, but, per the argument, just as empty emoting.  Either way, it’s an argumentative failure.  But, perhaps more importantly, a moral one, too.

No, YOU calm down!

Ron Ross’s piece over at The American Spectator is really a mess.  AmSpec usually does a pretty good job of keeping the tinfoil hat brigade off the page and only in the comments.  Not so this time.  The core view is that liberalism is a lie propped up by lies and executed by liars.  Why would these folks lie so much and be such liars? Well, because they want power.  Most of Ross’s examples aren’t examples of lies per se, but more cases of either confusion, just being wrong, or are matters of reasonable disagreement.  For example, Ross holds that President Obama lied when he said he’d uphold the Constitution.  But because Obama’s interpretation of the Constitution conflicts with his, Ross takes this as a lie.

Barack Obama took a sacred oath to uphold the Constitution. He never had the slightest intention of adhering to the Constitution, as we now well know.

Oy.  That’s not a lie.  That’s a disagreement about what the Constitution allows for the executive branch (between an opinion journalist and a man who taught Constitutional Law), and using ad populum (“that we all know”) to cover that over is more in lie territory than what he’s accusing Obama of.  Regardless, Ross’s view of liberals culminates in the following assessment:

Liberals cannot tell the truth, and in this context the word has two meanings. They cannot tell the truth because what they want to accomplish isn’t what most people want. And they cannot tell the truth because it’s become habitual not to. It is so much a part and parcel of their being that it’s become second nature. They do it without thinking. They actually enjoy lying. It’s their favorite pastime.

What’s particularly irritating about the piece is Ross’s regular complaint that liberals can’t even see any conservatives as reasonable.

They cannot imagine any legitimate reason anyone would disagree with them. If you disagree there must be something wrong with you.

First off, the lying view and this No Reasonable Opposition view are inconsistent.  If you must lie to get your view out, you must think that reasonable people will reject it.  That’s why you must lie.  So the lying thesis requires reasonable opposition.  But that’s not the real problem here.  Look at how Ross has painted the liberal, as someone who has no interest in truth or rational exchange, but rather as someone looking for raw power, someone who has something wrong inside.  I just wonder if Ron Ross’s house has any mirrors.

The problem with No Reasonable Opposition views is that they actually have a very heavy burden of showing how the opposition actually fails to even be in the hunt for truth.  It’s taken to be an all-to-easy burden, but it’s actually a very demanding burden to handle.  No wonder those who make use of it (perhaps because it’s rhetorically very powerful) never properly deploy it.



Sometimes ad hominem is warranted

Phil Plait’s got a serious take-down of the recent claim that there’s been a meteorite found that has diatom fossils in it (at Salon).  Plait’s case is along a few lines: (1) that the rock doesn’t look like it’s a meteorite and has no documentation of how it was found or recovered, (2) the diatoms in it seem to be from Earth, like from a riverbed.  But he opens by criticizing the source of the claim.  He says  N. C. Wickramasinghe, the author of the paper reporting the meteorite, “jumps on everything, with little or no evidence, and says it’s from outer space, so I think there’s a case to be made for a bias on his part.”

Plait then turns to forearm against a concern about the present line of argument:

Now, you might accuse me of using an ad hominem, an argument that cast aspersions on the person making the claim, and not attacking the claim itself. I’ll get to the claim in a moment, but sometimes an ad hominem is warranted!

He makes the case with an analogy:

If Jenny McCarthy claimed botox cures autism, again, you might be forgiven for doubting it based on her previous anti-vaccine and other false claims. You still need to examine the claims on their own merits, of course, but: Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

But, now, this isn’t an ad hominem, per se, is it?  When the premises are that the person has a bad track record in the area they are reporting in (or in relevantly similar areas), that’s not ad hominem, but a case against their status as an authority.  I suppose that the basic thought is:  arguments against the person are appropriate when they are relevant to whether the conclusion is acceptable.  If we have reason to believe that S is unreliable, that’s a relevant consideration when we’re considering S’s reportage.

So a question to the NS readers:  should we save terms like ad hominem exclusively for the fallaciously irrelevant considerations of a speaker to impugn his/her claims, or can we allow the term to extend to relevant considerations?  I’ve argued that we should have that flexibility with plenty of other forms of argument, even with straw men and the tu quoque.  But ad hominem seems to have exclusively fallacious connotations for me.  Thoughts?

Ad rockstarium

I think it's worthwhile to keep track of the ways the sides in a debate try to paint the character of the other.  Sometimes, it is simple observations about what kind of person would hold such and such a view, other times, it's about what kind of person would be blind to evidence of such and such degrees of obviousness.  Often, it's mere rhetorical window-dressing, and often enough, it's direct ad hominem.  I've been keen on the recent presidential character-painting.  Romney's a robot (a very funny meme) or vulture-capitalist, Obama's either a socialist-totalitarian or a decent but unqualified doofus.  These all seem fine to me, at least in the sense that they're at least capable of being put in the service of evaluating the character of the person who's to be the President of the United States and the Commander in Chief.  Who occupies the office matters, so character evaluation is relevant. 

One line of argument that I don't see the point of, though, is what I've come to call the ad rockstarium argument against Barack Obama.  Mark Steyn at National Review Online runs it in his recent "Our Celebrity President."  Here's the basics from Steyn:

Last week, the republic’s citizen-president passed among his fellow Americans. Where? Cleveland? Dubuque? Presque Isle, Maine? No, Beverly Hills. These days, it’s pretty much always Beverly Hills or Manhattan, because that’s where the money is. That’s the Green Zone, and you losers are outside it.

As I can gather, here's how the argument runs:

1) The President goes to fundraisers in California and New York, not Middle America.

2) You live in Middle America

So: The president isn't interest in you or your money. Well… maybe your money.  How much you got?

Steyn goes on:

It’s true that moneyed celebrities in, say, Pocatello or Tuscaloosa have not been able to tempt the president to hold a lavish fundraiser in Idaho or Alabama, but he does fly over them once in a while.

That's right!  He went to the 'fly-over' line.  OK, so if I'm right that some evaluations of character are relevant, does this one count as one?  I don't think so, as the issue isn't whether Obama is popular and adored but whether he's the kind of person who can be trusted with policy decisions.  I think the best that this line of evaluation can do is say that Obama is a rockstar, and rockstars do things differently from you…  I'll be trying to keep up with more of the rockstarium argument as the campaign goes on.  Any help on seeing how the line is relevant?  Is it a form of upside down ad populum: he's not like us, so he's wrong?

Adoption is a beautiful choice

Busy lately, so outsourcing to Think Progress.  Here's Dr.Keith Ablow on David Brock, former right-winger and founder of Media Matters:

ABLOW: He’s a dangerous man, because having followers and waging war… this isn’t accidental language. It’s about violence, destruction, and he feels destroyed in himself. […] This is an adopted boy who needs to plumb the depths of his psyche. He was adopted. Many adopted children are tremendously well-adjusted, but for some reason, this man feels he’s unloved and unloveable, shunted to the side, and that’s the antidote he feels: unlimited power. Guess what? It never ever works.

But Keith Ablow is bald.  You cannot ignore that.  Many bald people are well adjusted, but for some reason, Ablow isn't. 

Seriously, however, when I make up these arguments for quizzes on fallacies I feel as if I'm being unfair.  Nice to be proven wrong.  I think.

Everyone ’round here loves the ad populum!

Quin Hillyer, over at the American Spectator, is running the "We don't cotton to his kind" argument about President Obama's policies and style of governance. Hillyer has recently moved to Mobile, Alabama after years in Washington, D.C.  He's now writing about how everyday Americans in RedState American cities (or, as Hillyer calls them, "The Real America") have their American sensibilities offended by so obviously an un-American President. 

More than anything else, though, again and again and again, the question comes at me, with a deep concern almost plaintive in nature: Who is out there who can beat Obama and do an okay job? This isn’t merely a “Clinton is a scuzzbucket” or a “Carter is inept” sort of sentiment. This is different. This is an expression of the conviction that what Obama is doing, along with the likes of Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, is alien to our very idea of what being an American means.

All of the alien ideas are: the health insurance mandate and government stimulus spending.  But what Hillyer takes as the indicator that Obama is so alien isn't really that he objects to his policies.  He takes it that because Obama doesn't go in for flag-waving extravaganza, he's not one of us.  Same goes for pretty  much anyone associated with him:

Does anybody doubt that Van Jones would sneer at the tri-colored bunting? Does anybody doubt that White House Science Czar John Holdren would look askance at the propagation of so many carbon-emitting children? Does anybody really think that Obama himself feels real joy at hearing a 13-year-old recite the Declaration’s words about rights endowed by a Creator?

Yes, it's come to this — the lefties are sneering cheese-and-brie-crowd haters of America and Americans. 

Ad hominems and drawing conclusions about character

Ad hominem abusive fallacies are fallacies of relevance.  The basic scheme for the fallacy type is:

P1: S holds that p

P2: S has some vice, X

C1:  Therefore, p is false (or unacceptable).

With my informal logic classes, I have the regular joke: Just because Brenda is a heavy drinker, that doesn't mean that she doesn't know much about politics — She may be a heavy drinker because she knows politics!  That gets lots of laughs, believe me.  But now, consider an argument of a different form, but composed of similar propositions:

P3: p is demonstrably false (i.e., there is sufficient and easily accessible evidence that p is false)

P4: S holds that p, despite P3

C2: Therefore, S has some vice X (where X = vices from simple stupidity to willful ignorance to suffers from ideological thinking)

Importantly, the argument has very similar claims as the ad hominem abusive, but it is of a different form — we are reasoning to S's vice, not from it.  Now, it is clear that this second kind of argument can be made hastily (as there is a big difference between being wrong and being stupid — that's the Fallacy of No Reasonable Alternatives, a species of false dilemma), but it does seem right that P3 and P4 are relevant to C2.  This second form of argument is one either (a) addressed to some third party about S or (b) addressed directly to S in order to request that S reform how she performs in argument regarding p (and perhaps other issues).

With the theoretical apparatus assembled, let's look at Steve Chapman's column, "Why Birtherism is Here to Stay," over at 

There has never been a shred of persuasive evidence that Obama was born anywhere but Hawaii. But thanks to rampant paranoia and widespread credulity, the myth of his foreign origins gained currency among many people who should know better.

What is Chapman's explanation for this phenomenon — people who believe things that they should know better to not?

A poll taken after the release of his birth certificate showed 18 percent of those who have seen it still aren't convinced.  Something about this president impels many people to accept anything that is said about him, as long as it's unfavorable. . . .   Birthers don't dislike Obama because they think he was born abroad. They think he was born abroad because they dislike him. People of this bent don't proceed from facts to a conclusion. They prefer to reach a conclusion and then scrounge for any facts — or "facts" — that support it.  For them, being told Obama is a natural-born American is like being told he's a loving father and a loyal friend. They won't buy it because it doesn't confirm what they want to be true.

The logician and pragmatist C.S. Peirce called these sorts of patterns of thought 'pseudoreasoning,' and it looks very much like a form of rationalizing.  And the key to the effectiveness of these strategies of thought is that the people making errors with them are not exposed to the consequences of being wrong.  If you pseudoreason your way to believing that you can fly, you pay the consequences.  But if you pseudoreason your way to believing that the President of the United States is a Muslim Marxist AntiChrist, you make lots of friends (and if you stop believing them, you lose those friends).

This is surprising only if you think of political views as a matter of logical reasoning. For many people, they really aren't. They're a way of indulging emotional impulses without suffering painful consequences. . . . [I]f thinking Obama is a foreigner brings you closer to people you like, you come out ahead. Birthers would rather be wrong than be divided from their allies. So the fiction that Obama was born in Kenya will endure, and many Americans will hold fast to a ridiculous article of faith that has been conclusively refuted.

The thing is that this does amount to calling Birthers credulous, ideological, and cognitively blind.  Chapman forgot one thing more for his piece: directing readers to the comments for this piece!

How not to defend yourself (gnu atheist style!)

For those of you who don't know, Rob Talisse and I have been posting about atheism and argumentative civility over at 3QuarksDaily.  First, here; the follow up here.  Our book, Reasonable Atheism is on the shelves now, too.   In the blog posts, we've been trying to untangle the ugliness about the charge of 'accommodationism' among the atheists. Well, that angers the gnus, because they keep thinking that people are wagging their fingers at them about tone.  And angry atheists don't like to be told to be nicer.  (And, by the way, nothing about what we'd written was about tone, anyway. So…)

We criticized PZ Myers, of pharyngula fame, for making an error we see a lot: holding a person in contempt for believing something you think is false.  The point is that there's a difference between being wrong and being stupid, and Myers makes the error all too often.  He posted a comment on our first entry (Feb 7, 2011 10:36:49 PM) and said that there are 'irrational reasons'.   But only people are irrational.  Reasons are irrelevant, insufficient, poorly arranged, and so on.  A person may be irrational for holding those reasons, but that's the point.  He's making the error in spades there.  We made the distinction again in the follow-up and even provided some examples.  And then Myers defends himself with this:

Dear sweet goddess of academic loquaciousness, is the whole book written in that style? Is anyone going to be able to read it? Those three paragraphs nearly killed me with their preening opacity! And, near as I can tell, all they're doing is fussing over the conjunction of two words that they found incomprehensible.

Wow.  That we were hard to read is a defense?  Seriously?  I now know why Myers thinks that most sophisticated defenses of religious belief are totally stupid.  He doesn't understand them, because he has no interest in reading hard things.   A shame, really, that someone who stands for rational discourse and reason helping has no interest in responding to criticism with any.

Oh, and if we needed to make explicit the form of the fallacy, it's ad hominem abusive.  Classic, baby, classic.

What about quests?

So Bill O'Reilly, cable TV blowhard hardly worth commenting on, has advanced the argumentum ad aestum (ex aesto?  ab aesto?–ideas anyone), or the argument from the tides, for the existence of God.  The thought goes something like this:

O'REILLY: I'll tell you why [religion's] not a scam, in my opinion: tide goes in, tide goes out. Never a miscommunication. You can't explain that.

SILVERMAN: Tide goes in, tide goes out?

O'REILLY: See, the water, the tide comes in and it goes out, Mr. Silverman. It always comes in, and always goes out. You can't explain that.

You can explain it–moon, gravity, etc. (from the same link as above):

Tides are the rise and fall of sea levels caused by the combined effects of the gravitational forces exerted by the Moon and the Sun and the rotation of the Earth.

Most places in the ocean usually experience two high tides and two low tides each day (semidiurnal tide), but some locations experience only one high and one low tide each day (diurnal tide). The times and amplitude of the tides at the coast are influenced by the alignment of the Sun and Moon, by the pattern of tides in the deep ocean (see figure 4) and by the shape of the coastline and near-shore bathymetry.

O'Reilly remains unconvinced.  He replies:

Okay, how did the Moon get there? How'd the Moon get there? Look, you pinheads who attacked me for this, you guys are just desperate. How'd the Moon get there? How'd the Sun get there? How'd it get there? Can you explain that to me? How come we have that and Mars doesn't have it? Venus doesn't have it. How come? Why not? How'd it get here?

Now now Bill, there's no reason to throw around the insults.  There's a perfectly adequate explanation for all of this.  Besides, the original argument had to do with the regular behavior of the tides (a sign, I'd say, of an obsessive-compulsive deity), not with the existence of objects. 

In all seriousness, O'Reilly displays an unfortunate characteristic of the cable TV blowhard (print pundit, etc.)–the near constant attempt to make the closing argument.  It's not just that his objectors are wrong (they're not); it's that the argument with them (pinheads) is over; they're "desparate," they have nothing to contribute.  A mind such as O'Reilly's, however, will never use the closer alone, he'll use it in conjunction with some variety of straw man or other fallacy.  Here I think he's changed the subject, and then accused the objector with not having an answer to his new argument (in their old argument).  I suppose this is a representational straw man, as that wasn't the point in the first place of the objector's argument. 

*For the title: watch this, the greatest review of any kind anywhere.

He forgot to mention that he is fat

We got twenty feet of snow around here, complete with thundersnow, so what better day could there be for a global warming post.

"Al Gore is fat" is shorthand for all of the ad hominem (meanie-meanie-bo-beanie variety) that people have heaped up on Al Gore for his attempt to explain the science of global warming to a science-disliking nation. 

Now our new Senator, Mark Kirk, has found a new way to achieve the same basic goal:

Another Republican blasted from both sides of the spectrum for his record on emissions, Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, said he is "not terribly concerned" about taking heat from green groups for his criticism of EPA action on carbon emissions.

"The consensus behind the climate change bill collapsed and then further deteriorated with the personal and political collapse of Vice President [Al] Gore," Kirk said in a brief interview last week.

The thought goes something like this.  Al Gore's (personal characteristic) makes me doubt the scientific consensus behind global warming, because who would believe something that a (personal characteristic of Al Gore) believes.  


Then, FWIW, there's this funny item.