Tag Archives: Ad Hominem

Two scoops of weak man

Time magazine ran a bit about how President Trump got two scoops of ice cream for desert after a dinner interview, while everyone else got just one.  CNN then ran a few stories about it.

So far, not fake news.  Ah, but that’s not the issue.  The issue is how Breitbart and Hannity are responding to the story.  Here’s Hannity’s tweet:

The implication is that the story isn’t newsworthy, so CNN (and Time) are undercut as news organizations for running with it.

The first thing is a version of the weak man point.  Judging a news organization on the basis of its weakest story is uncharitable, especially if it’s a slower news day.   Puff pieces happen when you’ve got a 24-hour news channel.  One nut-picked puff piece does not a case against a network make.  So long as it’s not made up, poorly sourced, or misleading, how exactly is this bad journalism?

The second thing is that I’m not sure what the argument against the story is beyond the implication that it comes off a little petty.  But here’s the thing: the character of the President of the United States is a matter of significant import. (I’d posted something on this point about ad hominem a little while back.)  And what we seem to keep getting is a picture of a very selfish person.  Sure, it’s not a scoop on whether there are “tapes” of the conversation Trump had with Comey, and it’s not a discovery of evidence of collusion with Russia.  But it is yet one more story confirming what we’d had a pretty good idea of to begin with, and that the office has had no change on the character of the man inhabiting it.


James Brown’s hair

One reason we started this blog so many years ago was to create a repository of examples of bad arguments. There were, we thought, so many. There are, we still think, so many.

Since then, we’ve expanded our focus to theoretical questions about argumentation. One such question is whether there are actually any fallacious arguments at all. Part of this question concerns the usefulness of a meta-language of argument evaluation. Argument has a tendency to eat everything around it, which means evaluations of arguments will be included in the argument itself. To use a sports analogy, penalties are not separate from the game, they’re part of the strategy of the game. The use of fallacies, then, is just another layer of argument strategy and practice.

That’s not the usual argument, I think, against employing a meta-language of fallacy evaluation. Often rather the discussion hinges one whether such moves can be precisely identified, or whether it’s practically useful to point them out. These, like the first, are both excellent considerations.

On the other hand, there’s a heuristic usefulness to a set of meta-terms for argument evaluation. For one, it’s nice to have an organized mind about these things.  Second, people tend to make the same moves over and over. Consider this one from Bill O’Reilly last week:

In case you can’t watch, a brief summary (courtesy of CNN):

During an appearance on “Fox & Friends,” O’Reilly reacted to a clip of Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) delivering a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives.

I didn’t hear a word she said,” O’Reilly said of Waters. “I was looking at the James Brown wig.”

“If we have a picture of James Brown — it’s the same wig,” he added.

The classical version of the ad hominem goes like this: some speaker is disqualified on grounds not relevant to their competence, accuracy, etc. This seems like a pretty textbook example.

This brings me to another reason people have for skepticism about the usefulness of fallacy theory: fallacies, such as the one above, are so rare that it’s just not useful to spend time theorizing about them.

I don’t think so.


Norms of Assertion #2

In more news of assertions made without backing (see previous post about the various norms of assertion), Joe Scarborough Tweeted:

Two assertions, really.  #1: Trump leaked the return, and #2: He did it as a distraction.

The backing: That it’s “painfully obvious.”  Pretty weak backing.  But, hey, it’s Twitter.

Interestingly, Scarborough was challenged by one of Trump’s lawyers, Michael Cohen — in particular, that he should have some support for such claims:

A pretty apt response, with a little heat to it.  It is ironic, however, that a Trump representative is making hay out of someone making unsubstantiated claims.  Oh, and then Scarborough took the bait:

Oy vey.  Wrong way to do this.

Scarborough is committing two errors here.  First, is what’s been called the Free Speech FallacyJohn’s got a nice bit on it HERE, and we’ve got an entry in the coming Bad Arguments: 100 of the Most Important Important Fallacies.  Here’s our line:

The fallacy arises when a contributor to a critical exchange confuses the protected freedom of expressing an opinion with correlate obligations to reply to freely expressed critical opinions of others.

And note, that using the Free Speech Fallacy is a form of ignoratio argument — that we change what’s being criticized from what was said to whether one has the right to say it.  (I’d had an earlier point about this HERE, which I’d called the ‘meta-move’).   So taking the first amendment strategy is no defense against the request/demand for evidence.  Nor is it a reply to the insult that he has a big mouth.  In fact, some replies seem to confirm the accusations!

The second error is with taking a request, admittedly with heat, as purely intimidation.  In a way, I think this is a bit of straw-manning, which is to focus on the tone of a challenge instead of the content, and then make the case that someone is using an ad baculum or some other scare tactic.

Imagine that A gives a crappy argument, perhaps that B has made some moral error.  B, in reply, says something like:

Look, asshole, if you’re going to make a charge like that, you’ve got to have better grounds.  Seriously, what’s wrong with you?

And A replies:

Now who’s the asshole… defending yourself with an ad hominem against me?

For sure, B put some stank on the reply, but there wasn’t an argument from A’s being an asshole to A making unsubstantiated claims.  Rather, it was from A’s making unsubstantiated claims to A being an asshole.  Mistaking heat of reply with a premise of argument or with intimidation is to mistake tone and content.  And, you know, grownups who have hard conversations have to keep the two distinct all the time.


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


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.