Tag Archives: Ad Hominem

Days of Reason

Fig. 1: how to avoid genocide

Two items today.

First item, the Mayor of Charlotte, NC, and current Transportation Secretary Nominee, Anthony Foxx declared last Thursday, May 2, a Day of Reason and a Day of Prayer.

Now comes the Fox News Crazy, Penny Nance, CEO of Concerned Women for America:

NANCE: Clearly, we need faith as a component, and its just silly to say otherwise. You know the Age of Enlightenment and Reason gave way to moral relativism. And moral relativism is what led us all the way down the dark path to the Holocaust…Dark periods of history is what we arrive at when we leave God out of the equation.

First, to iron man: nothing crazier than Thomas Aquinas here, declaring reason alone insufficient for human salvation.  If we have to depend on our own lights, in other words, we’re going to blow it.

But iron manning this argument hides crucial insufficiencies.  Moral relativism had nothing to do with the Holocaust, and there isn’t a slippery slope from reason to genocide.  Sure, you can have reasons for genocide, but they’re bad reasons.

Second item.  In another almost comical display of incompetence, Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University Niall Ferguson lays bare the shortcomings of the work of economist John Maynard KeynesHere is an account.

Speaking at the Tenth Annual Altegris Conference in Carlsbad, Calif., in front of a group of more than 500 financial advisors and investors, Ferguson responded to a question about Keynes’ famous philosophy of self-interest versus the economic philosophy of Edmund Burke, who believed there was a social contract among the living, as well as the dead. Ferguson asked the audience how many children Keynes had. He explained that Keynes had none because he was a homosexual and was married to a ballerina, with whom he likely talked of “poetry” rather than procreated. The audience went quiet at the remark. Some attendees later said they found the remarks offensive.

That’s right: Keynes is wrong because he’s gay.  I’d feel crazy had I used that argument as a fictional example of an ad hominem.  But alas.  I don’t go often enough to the well from which this sprung.  Check out the link, turns out the “Keynes is gay” charge is quite the right wing meme.

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?

There’s a 73.6 percent chance of a sea battle tomorrow

I've said it a bunch here, but I'll say it again.  The textbook examples of fallacies have nothing on the actual fallacious arguments people make.  At this link is an add put out in favor of the Republican Party.  See if you can count the fallacies. 

And here is someone (I'm not going to link directly to him) taking on political odds maker Nate Silver:

Nate Silver is a man of very small stature, a thin and effeminate man with a soft-sounding voice that sounds almost exactly like the “Mr. New Castrati” voice used by Rush Limbaugh on his program. In fact, Silver could easily be the poster child for the New Castrati in both image and sound. Nate Silver, like most liberal and leftist celebrities and favorites, might be of average intelligence but is surely not the genius he’s made out to be. His political analyses are average at best and his projections, at least this year, are extremely biased in favor of the Democrats.

Apparently, Nate Silver has his own way of “skewing” the polls. He appears to look at the polls available and decide which ones to put more “weighting” on in compiling his own average, as opposed to the Real Clear Politics average, and then uses the average he calculates to determine that percentages a candidate has of winning that state. He labels some polling firms as favoring Republicans, even if they over sample Democrats in their surveys, apparently because he doesn’t agree with their results. In the end the polls are gerrymandering into averages that seem to suit his agenda to make the liberal Democrats candidates apparently strong than they are.

That's weird; if you think Nate Silver's methodology sucks, then you don't really need to comment on his stature, his voice, or whether or not he has testicles.  If you think that is bad, and I hope you do, then you'll appreciate the more serious commentary of MSNBC's Joe Scarborough (via Charles Pierce):

Nate Silver says this is a 73.6 percent chance that the president is going to win? Nobody in that campaign thinks they have a 73 percent chance — they think they have a 50.1 percent chance of winning. And you talk to the Romney people, it's the same thing," Scarborough said. "Both sides understand that it is close, and it could go either way. And anybody that thinks that this race is anything but a tossup right now is such an ideologue, they should be kept away from typewriters, computers, laptops and microphones for the next 10 days, because they're jokes."

Scarborough makes too much money to confuse the principle of bivalence (i.e., every proposition is either true or false) with probability (e.g., you have a 1 percent chance of winning!).  Sadly, odds are that his salary depends on his not understanding that. 

Every effect has a cause, usually

Someone quipped the other day that whatever we do in the wake of Saturday's massacre (not tragedy), we must not consider what might have caused it.  And so, George Will:

It would be merciful if, when tragedies such as Tucson's occur, there were a moratorium on sociology. But respites from half-baked explanations, often serving political opportunism, are impossible because of a timeless human craving and a characteristic of many modern minds.

Well, I say all men by nature desire to know.  I'd also say the very frequency of mass casualty attacks means they fall into the "things deserving explanation category."  It's "tragedies" plural, after all.

Who can blame George Will (and the rest of the pack of Wapo conservatives); no one likes to be associated with psychos.  As someone else quipped (on twitter of all places): if they're looking for advice on how to manage the unjust assocation, maybe they can ask Muslims.  If someone holds beliefs remotely similar to yours, after all, you're guilty unless you spend all day every day distancing yourself from them.  Well, that's the way it is for Muslims, at least.

Anyway, the point I wanted to make today was already made by smarter and more articulate people.  So I'll just repeat most of what they said.

While calling for caution, honesty, and rigor in attributing specific causes to the events in Tucscon, George Will casts caution to the wind in interpreting the words of others.  He writes:

Three days before Tucson, Howard Dean explained that the Tea Party movement is "the last gasp of the generation that has trouble with diversity." Rising to the challenge of lowering his reputation and the tone of public discourse, Dean smeared Tea Partyers as racists: They oppose Obama's agenda, Obama is African American, ergo . . .

Let us hope that Dean is the last gasp of the generation of liberals whose default position in any argument is to indict opponents as racists. This McCarthyism of the left – devoid of intellectual content, unsupported by data – is a mental tic, not an idea but a tactic for avoiding engagement with ideas. It expresses limitless contempt for the American people, who have reciprocated by reducing liberalism to its current characteristics of electoral weakness and bad sociology.

By way of analogy, which is a kind of argument, I might pick out eleven words from Erick Erickson or Glenn Beck, or whoever, that suggest one ought to take up arms against the government.  But that wouldn't be fair, would it?   Well in their case it just appears to be plainly true. Anyway, the point is that Dean was making a more nuanced point that Will's slimy quotation suggests.  And so we have, I think, the beginnings of a classic representational form straw man.  It begins with pure distortion directly attributed to someone else.  But this one has, I think, a key feature of the fallacious straw man–the employment of the distortion to close the argument–which is exactly what Will does.  It's not enough, in other words, that Dean's contribution to the Tea Party discourse blows.  He's also a moron for offering it, a moron not worthy of further serious intellectual engagement.

Facts and science and argument

The first rule of American political discourse is that you cannot mention the inanity of American political discourse.  Here is Obama:

"Part of the reason that our politics seems so tough right now and facts and science and argument does not seem to be winning the day all the time is because we're hardwired not to always think clearly when we're scared,” Obama said Saturday evening in remarks at a small Democratic fundraiser Saturday evening. “And the country's scared.”

A thousand examples come to mind.  Just for fun, however, I clicked a link right to the left of this Politico story.  Near the top of the page, this is what it said:

Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh on Monday rolled out a new attack on Barack Obama, charging that the president looks "demonic."

Pointing to a recent picture of the president highlighted by the conservative Drudge Report, Limbaugh improbably declared during his show Monday that there are no other photos of "an American president with facial expressions like this."

"These pictures, they look demonic," Limbaugh said, in comments later posted on his website.

"It is strange that these pictures would be released," Limbaugh said of the images, which were taken by a wire service. "It's very, very, very strange."

"An American president has never had facial expressions like this," the conservative insisted. "At least, we've never seen photos of an American president with facial expressions like this."

Facts and science and argument.  Anyway, Here's Michael Gerson's take on Obama's remarks:

Let's unpack these remarks.

Obama clearly believes that his brand of politics represents "facts and science and argument." His opponents, in disturbing contrast, are using the more fearful, primitive portion of their brains. Obama views himself as the neocortical leader — the defender, not just of the stimulus package and health-care reform but also of cognitive reasoning. His critics rely on their lizard brains — the location of reptilian ritual and aggression. Some, presumably Democrats, rise above their evolutionary hard-wiring in times of social stress; others, sadly, do not.

There is a principle in argument, called the principle of charity, which has it that in the absence of the object of one's criticism, one ought to be nice.  This is not nice.  And it's obviously false.  Obama is talking about the state of our political discourse–the discourse where whether he looks like the devil constitutes a noteworthy intervention. 

But don't let me tell you.  Listen to Gerson (a few paragraphs down the page):

There have been several recent attempts to explain Obama's worldview as the result of his post-colonial father or his early socialist mentors — Gnostic attempts to produce the hidden key that unlocks the man. The reality is simpler. In April 2008, Obama described small-town voters to wealthy donors in San Francisco: "It's not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them." Now, to wealthy donors in Massachusetts, opponents are "hard-wired not to always think clearly." Interpreting Obama does not require psychoanalysis or the reading of mystic Chicago runes. He is an intellectual snob.

Not only does this reference the kind of off-the-wall crap that constitutes political analysis in certain quarters, but in engages in the kind of silly discourse Obama is criticizing.  Rather than consider Obama's fairly moderate point–I mean seriously, death panels–Gerson turns the discussion to the person.  Perhaps Obama ought to have said: "rather than have a discussion about reality, some, such as Michael Gerson, would like to talk about what a snob I am to make such a demand."

Electronic Lynch Mob

A law professor at the University of Chicago wrote a post about what a bad idea increasing the marginal tax rates on couples making more than 250,000 is.  His was an ad misericoridiam (not the fallacious kind by the way) argument: look at me, I'm a potential payer at this rate, I will suffer, so it's not fair for people like me to pay and so forth.  It turns out that he had not cleared with his wife (who rightfully disagreed with his analysis), so he took the post down.  More on that in a second.

Here is some of the original argument.

I, like the president before me, am a law professor at the University of Chicago Law School, and my wife, like the first lady before her, works at the University of Chicago Hospitals, where she is a doctor who treats children with cancer. Our combined income exceeds the $250,000 threshold for the super rich (but not by that much), and the president plans on raising my taxes. After all, we can afford it, and the world we are now living in has that familiar Marxian tone of those who need take and those who can afford it pay. The problem is, we can’t afford it. Here is why.

The biggest expense for us is financing government. Last year, my wife and I paid nearly $100,000 in federal and state taxes, not even including sales and other taxes. This amount is so high because we can’t afford fancy accountants and lawyers to help us evade taxes and we are penalized by the tax code because we choose to be married and we both work outside the home. (If my wife and I divorced or were never married, the government would write us a check for tens of thousands of dollars. Talk about perverse incentives.)

Our next biggest expense, like most people, is our mortgage. Homes near our work in Chicago aren’t cheap and we do not have friends who were willing to help us finance the deal. We chose to invest in the University community and renovate and old property, but we did so at an inopportune time.

We pay about $15,000 in property taxes, about half of which goes to fund public education in Chicago. Since we care the education of our three children, this means we also have to pay to send them to private school. My wife has school loans of nearly $250,000 and I do too, although becoming a lawyer is significantly cheaper. We try to invest in our retirement by putting some money in the stock market, something that these days sounds like a patriotic act. Our account isn’t worth much, and is worth a lot less than it used to be.

Like most working Americans, insurance, doctors’ bills, utilities, two cars, daycare, groceries, gasoline, cell phones, and cable TV (no movie channels) round out our monthly expenses. We also have someone who cuts our grass, cleans our house, and watches our new baby so we can both work outside the home. At the end of all this, we have less than a few hundred dollars per month of discretionary income. We occasionally eat out but with a baby sitter, these nights take a toll on our budget. Life in America is wonderful, but expensive.  

For a complete refutation of this argument, click here.  Read the whole thing (and the comments).  I'm not interested in this argument. 

What interests me is a subsequent post, where the good professor explains why he took down the post.  Here it is:

The posts that generated an unintended blogocane have been deleted. I stand by the posts, the facts in them, and the points they were making. The reason I took the very unusual step of deleting them is because my wife, who did not approve of my original post and disagrees vehemently with my opinion, did not consent to the publication of personal details about our family. In retrospect, it was a highly effective but incredibly stupid thing to do. The electronic lynch mob that has attacked and harassed me — you should see the emails sent to me personally! — has made my family feel threatened and insecure. We recently had a very early preemie, and this was a quite inopportune time to bring this on my family. For the record, I still think the planned tax increases will negatively impact my family and my country, but that is basically all I should have said. To my wife, my three children, and to anyone who was offended by my remarks, please accept my apologies. To those with pitchforks trying to attack me instead of my message, I feel sorry for you. You have caused untold damage to me personally. I may be wrong, even stupid, but I don’t think I deserved that.

This is worse than the original.  The good professor ought to know that he made himself and his very sorry financial planning skills, understanding of tax law, sense of empathy, and so on, the argument.  To respond to such an argument–which one has a duty an obligation to do if one disagrees (and besides he published it)–one has to go ad hominem.  This going ad hominem is not going ad hominem of the fallacious kind, because the initial position is an ad hominem too.

Let me put this another way.  If I claim that event x will negatively impact me personally, and it turns out that instead the negative impact is due to my own poor decision making, that is completely relevant to whether it will negatively impact me.  I cannot believe this guy cannot appreciate that point.  If you don't want to get attacked personally, don't make ad misericordiam arguments.

Straight face

Maggie Gallagher, president of NOM, writes:

Despite the media hoopla, this is not the first case in which a federal judge has imagined and ruled that our Constitution requires same-sex marriage. A federal judge in Nebraska ruled for gay marriage in 2005 and was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in 2006.

The Proposition 8 case on which the Ninth Circuit's Judge Vaughn Walker ruled Wednesday was pushed by two straight guys with a hunger for media attention, lawyers with huge egos who overrode the considered judgment of major figures in the gay legal establishment, thinkers who feared exactly what we anticipate: the Supreme Court will uphold Prop. 8 and the core civil rights of Californians and all Americans to vote for marriage as one man and one woman.

Judge Walker's ruling proves, however, that the American people were and are right to fear that too many powerful judges do not respect their views, or the proper limits of judicial authority. Did our Founding Fathers really create a right to gay marriage in the U.S. Constitution? It is hard for anyone reading the text or history of the 14th Amendment to make that claim with a straight face, no matter how many highly credentialed and brilliant so-called legal experts say otherwise.

Nevermind the ad homs (ego-driven straight guys!) and the beggings of the question (proper limits of judicial authority!), I don't understand the last sentence.  Allow me to reconstruct:

  1. Many highly credentialed experts, with the proper knowledge and experience, assert x.
  2. no one can seriously claim x.

Pardon my confusion, but it seems like just the right kind of people–qualified straight people with straight faces–have made the assertion, I think that means it has some initial plausibility. 

Now of course, the controversy might be how one interprets "x" in my reconstruction.  And this is where Ms. Gallagher hollow mans–I don't think anyone has made the claim she alleges ("created an [enumerated] right….").  So no one, with a straight face or otherwise, is arguing that the COTUS (anyone ever say that?  They should) utters the phrase "gay marriage."  Of course, as far as I know, it doesn't say "marriage" either. 

via Pandagon via Atrios.

My distortions are your fault

There was a time when a young Robert Samuelson insisted that cost should not count if something like an invasion of Iraq was necessary. He wrote:

A possible war with Iraq raises many unknowns, but “can we afford it?” is not one of them. People inevitably ask that question, forgetting that the United States has become so wealthy it can wage war almost with pocket change. A war with Iraq would probably cost less than 1 percent of national income (gross domestic product). Americans have grown accustomed to fighting with little economic upset and sacrifice.

He regretted writing that. Having spent something like a lot of money now on Iraq, one might reasonably ask whether Samuelson should be listened to on matters of cost. I would say not. In any case, so Samuelson makes his argument against health care reform by the well-known device of attacking someone’s motives:

The campaign to pass Obama’s health-care plan has assumed a false, though understandable, cloak of moral superiority. It’s understandable because almost everyone thinks that people in need of essential medical care should get it; ideally, everyone would have health insurance. The pursuit of these worthy goals can easily be projected as a high-minded exercise for the public good.

It’s false for two reasons. First, the country has other goals — including preventing financial crises and minimizing the crushing effects of high deficits or taxes on the economy and younger Americans — that “health-care reform” would jeopardize. And second, the benefits of “reform” are exaggerated. Sure, many Americans would feel less fearful about losing insurance; but there are cheaper ways to limit insecurity. Meanwhile, improvements in health for today’s uninsured would be modest. They already receive substantial medical care. Insurance would help some individuals enormously, but studies find that, on average, gains are moderate. Despite using more health services, people don’t automatically become healthier.

Let me state first that Samuelson isn’t talking here about the specific plan (he does later, but he relies on the Lewin group, an insurance company funded “research” group–so, really, please), he’s talking about the general concept of reform. For anyone with a minimal knowledge of other industrialized nations, who spend at most about half of what he do and get a lot more, this is just an insult. For more on that, see here.

But more basically, Samuelson is doing a bit of straw man–weak man actually–and a bit of ad hominem circumstantial. It’s a weak man because he picks on the weakest of the pro-health reform moral arguments. There are other good moral reasons to support health care reform, and they involve arguments against the very real threat of medical bankruptcy, recision, denial of coverage of pre-existing conditions, and so forth.

The ad hominem accompanies the weak man–so weak are these arguments (which Samuelson has imputed to pro-reform people), that they must rather be dishonest attempts to score political points. Now that’s just a double-wammy. It’s a bit like saying this: “the weak argument I have dishonestly imputed to you is so bad that I question your honesty in making it.”

On the arguments against the specific plan, I’d say Samuelson needs to look beyond anti-reform sources of analysis and information. It’s a fair question whether the current plans being discussed will help, so we ought to have an honest discussion of that. But that perhaps is just hoping for too much.

But let me close by going back to something Samuelson said in defense of his poorly thought-out defense of the Iraq invasion:

But I am certain — now as then — that budget consequences should occupy a minor spot in our debates. It’s not that the costs are unimportant; it’s simply that they’re overshadowed by other considerations that are so much more important. We can pay for whatever’s necessary. If we decide to do less because that’s the most sensible policy, we shouldn’t delude ourselves that any “savings” will rescue us from our long-term budget predicament, which involves the huge costs of federal retirement programs. Just because the war is unpopular doesn’t mean it’s the source of all our problems.

Other considerations that are much more important. Indeed.

But you are the man

Not long ago there was that commercial for cell phones which featured a powerful CEO type (in a corner office) claiming to an underling that his new cell phone plan was his way of "sticking it to the man."  The underling responded, but "you are the man."  One couldn't help but be reminded of that during the Republican convention.  In the department of things that had to be said (which is not a department here), Paul Krugman writes:

Can the super-rich former governor of Massachusetts — the son of a Fortune 500 C.E.O. who made a vast fortune in the leveraged-buyout business — really keep a straight face while denouncing “Eastern elites”?

Can the former mayor of New York City, a man who, as USA Today put it, “marched in gay pride parades, dressed up in drag and lived temporarily with a gay couple and their Shih Tzu” — that was between his second and third marriages — really get away with saying that Barack Obama doesn’t think small towns are sufficiently “cosmopolitan”?

Can the vice-presidential candidate of a party that has controlled the White House, Congress or both for 26 of the past 28 years, a party that, Borg-like, assimilated much of the D.C. lobbying industry into itself — until Congress changed hands, high-paying lobbying jobs were reserved for loyal Republicans — really portray herself as running against the “Washington elite”?

Yes, they can.

This is not some kind of ad hominem, as someone might think.  Romney's vast wealth-and his Harvard education and Eastern upbringing–make nonsense of the charge of "Eastern elitism."  Elitism would disqualify Romney (and Bush and especially McCain) well before it would Obama.  But Romney's charge, its falsity aside, is an ad hominem: rather than address the impact of Obama's policy proposals on regular non-arugula eating folk, Romney and his ilk have made a concerted effort to talk about the distracting and meaningless effemera of personality.

Ad matrem et filium

Is this charge from Kathleen Parker just a lie, a reverse ad hominem tu quoque, or nutpicking?

Politicizing Bristol Palin's pregnancy, though predictable, is nonetheless repugnant and has often been absurd. It may be darkly ironic that a governor-mother who opposes explicit sex ed has a pregnant daughter, but experienced parents know that what one instructs isn't always practiced by one's little darlings.

We try; we sometimes fail. There are no perfect families and most of us get a turn on the wheel of misfortune.

Were it not for the pain of a teenager who didn't deserve to be exposed and exploited, the left's hypocrisy in questioning Palin's qualifications to be vice president against the backdrop of her family's choices would be delicious. Instead, it leaves a bad taste.

Would anyone ever ask whether a male candidate was qualified for office because his daughter was pregnant?

Some also have questioned whether Palin, whose son Trig has Down syndrome, can be both a mother and a vice president. These questions aren't coming from the right—so often accused of wanting to keep women barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen—but from the left.

Did someone switch the Kool-Aid?

I wonder this because Parker doesn't name anyone who makes those charges–no, saying "the left" doesn't count as naming anyone.  She might even be able to find someone, perhaps some anonymous diarist at the Daily Kos, but that would be nutpicking: trolling the comment threads of blogs looking for the person who says just what you need them to say, claiming all the while such a person represents "the left" or ("the right" for that matter).  But doesn't even bother to do this minimally sophistical thing.  That would at least give some cover to the false assertion.

It's clear that she wants to make the charge of hypocrisy.  But in order to do this she ought to have some minimum of purported hypocritical behavior.  So rather than speciously misrepresenting some particular charge against Palin, Parker has just made something up. 

Where I come from (Michigan), that's called "lying."

And it's still lying even if it's on the opinion page.