Tag Archives: Ad Hominem

Slamming

Fig. 1: a slam

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s an unproductive exchange between Paul Krugman and Joe Scarborough on the subject of the changes by the Census Bureau in the way it evaluates health care information.  First, here’s Scarborough on the changes:

“Listen, the White Houses on both sides do their best to cook the books,” he said. “This is a particularly clumsy effort.”

Krugman then observes:

You can argue that the Census decision to change its health-insurance questionnaire starting with the 2013 data wasn’t such a good idea — in fact, I know a number of health care experts who are dismayed,” wrote Krugman, a liberal columnist and Nobel Prize-winning economist. “But it’s really quite vile to have talk-show hosts who quite literally know nothing about the field, other than that they’re against covering the uninsured, casually accusing Census of “cooking the books” to support Obamacare.” (Link in the original.)

Note the concession, in bold.  Now Joe Scarborough responds:

“Paul’s shrill attack is off target and wrong, as usual. I just hope the good professor can work through the humiliation of his debate performance against me and will soon stop being driven to post silly attacks because of his feelings of inadequacy. I’m pulling for him,”

Krugman alleged Scarborough didn’t offer any evidence for his assertion that the books are being cooked; nonetheless, he attempts to move the ball forward here by conceding that the change might not have been wise; Scarborough ignores that, and declines to offer evidence for his assertion (or address the charge) opting instead for a textbook ad hominem.  This is how you make the big money folks.

On a related matter: could the authors at Salon and Talking Points Memo stop describing such interactions as “slams” or “rips”?  It’s dumb.

Ad evangelistam

Messenger

Let’s see if we can experience this in real time.  Here’s the Roman Pontiff on income inequality and related issues (via Reuters):

In his message for the Roman Catholic Church’s World Day of Peace, marked around the world on January 1, he also called for sharing of wealth and for nations to shrink the gap between rich and poor, more of whom are getting only “crumbs”.

“The grave financial and economic crises of the present time … have pushed man to seek satisfaction, happiness and security in consumption and earnings out of all proportion to the principles of a sound economy,” he said.

“The succession of economic crises should lead to a timely rethinking of our models of economic development and to a change in lifestyles,” he said.

I’m sympathetic to these arguments, but that’s not my point.  I’m interested in the reaction to them from the likes of Pope William O’Reilly, of New York, and such.  It’s hard, after all, to call the Francis I fat.  It’s also hard to distort his arguments; lying about the Pope is bad, at least for Catholics.

So, here’s how we proceed: post fun reactions in comments.

Judged by your fans

Pope Francis I has criticized corporate greed and capitalism’s systematic failure to ensure that people are not exploited.  Despite the fact that the communists have a longstanding critical attitude toward the Catholic Church, Mark Gruenberg at The People’s World, has applauded the new pope’s statements. (More on the pope’s views regarding the church’s “worldliness” here.)

When communists agree with the Pope, it’s time for conservatives to get antsy.  Especially conservative Catholics.  Cue Paul Kegnor at AmSpec.  Kegnor is careful to note first that:

The article quoted the pontiff several times. To be sure, few of us would disagree with any of the quotes.

So not it’s that the communists agree with what the Pope says that’s the problem.  It’s that communists agree with pope says.  That’s the problem.

Communists, of all people, finally believe they have a pope who agrees with them, that they like, that they can embrace, that they can encourage. I knew that Francis’ controversial interview on abortion, contraception, and gay marriage had thrilled liberals, liberal Catholics, dissident Catholics, secular progressives, agnostics, atheists, and socialists. You can read their websites. They love this guy. But communists?

Oh, yeah, I hear you.  When I find out that I endorse views held by a group I hold in contempt, I never take that as evidence that I may not have an accurate representation of that group.  I always take it that their agreement with me (or with the things said by another person that I agree with) is either strategic or based on their misunderstandings.  Never ever should, say, a Catholic think that Luke’s social justice doctrines have any resonance with concerns about capitalism.  Kegnor’s clear about it:

It seems to me that this is not the kind of praise that the pope should want.

Of course, the problem is that if Kegnor thinks that few people would disagree with what Pope Francis said, then aren’t there many, many others who’d be trouble, too?  For sure, politics makes strange bedfellows.  But why is one’s credibility in question when there are many who take you as credible?

 

Diverting from the topic matter

Iowa Representative Steven King reminds us of an important characteristic of ad hominem arguments–viz., calling someone names is not a sufficient condition for an ad hominem.  The matter begins with the following remark concerning granting amnesty to illegal immigrants:

“Some of them are valedictorians — and their parents brought them in. It wasn’t their fault. It’s true in some cases, but they aren’t all valedictorians. They weren’t all brought in by their parents.

For everyone who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds — and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert,” King tells Newsmax. “Those people would be legalized with the same act.” 

Naturally, people were quick to notice that this remark was “wrong” (to use the words of John Boehner, House Republican Majority Leader).  Yet, in an all too common response to criticism such as this, King attempted to turn the tables:

“You know when people attack you—in this business, when you’re in this business, you know that when people attack you, and they call you names, they’re diverting from the topic matter,” King told Breitbart. “You know they’ve lost the debate when they do that. We’ve talked about it for years. Tom Tancredo and I joked about it that that’s the pattern. When people start calling you names, that’s what confirms you’ve won the debate.”

No, that isn’t actually a rule.

This rule only works this way: Person A is wrong about policy X because Person A is an a-hole”.  But this isn’t how it went.  In the present case, we have Person A said something false so Person A is wrong.  It’s an inference to Person A’s character from Person A’s actions, deeds, or words.  This is very different.

Picture framing

ad deformem

For the informal logic connoisseurs, the modus tonens (identified by our very own Scott Aikin and co author Robert Talisse) consists in repeating back an interlocutor’s argument in a derisive tone (see also here).  There is a visual version of that which has long bothered me.  It involves posting a jerky looking photo of the person whose view you derisively or incredulously report (not refute, by the way, and I think this is important).  This happens in reporting, as the refutation is the picture.  Let’s provisionally call it the “ad deformem” (against ugly).

Take the above example from Talking Points Memo.  No doubt there exist lots of pictures of Erickson.  This one makes him look like a bloviating jerk.  What did he say?

In many, many animal species, the male and female of the species play complementary roles, with the male dominant in strength and protection and the female dominant in nurture. It’s the female who tames the male beast. One notable exception is the lion, where the male lion looks flashy but behaves mostly like a lazy beta-male MSNBC producer.

Yes, he certainly deserves to be laughed at for that.  But I don’t see the relevance of an uncharitable picture.  I don’t see the relevance of any picture at all, actually, save to identify the mug for the onlooking audience–to distinguish Erickson from George Will for instance.

The argument seems bad enough on its own.  And I think the uncharitable picture undermines, rather than advances, the report.  An accurate report ought to be enough to call attention to the appalling view; the picture turns our attention away from that and onto the person with the view.

Naturally these two persons need not always conflict (the ad hominem after all is not always fallacious), but one ought to be judicious in using them.

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."