Tag Archives: Ad hominem arguments


Fig 1: hypocrite

As we’ve argued here many times before, not all charges of hypocrisy are logically vicious.  Someone’s hypocrisy might be evidence that her view is too difficult to enact (like Newt Gingrich’s conception of traditional marriage) or, more importantly, that she’s logically incompetent.  Here is an example (from Talking Points Memo):

Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC) told a local television station that she would not be deferring her pay during the government shutdown, as some other members have done.

“I need my paycheck. That’s the bottom line,” Ellmers told WTVD in Raleigh, N.C. “I understand that there may be some other members who are deferring their paychecks, and I think that’s admirable. I’m not in that position.”

According to Ellmers’s official website, she was a registered nurse for 21 years before being elected to Congress. Her husband Brent, the website says, is a general surgeon.

Democratic Rep. G.K. Butterfield also told WTVD that he wouldn’t be deferring his pay. “I don’t think there should be a shutdown,” he said. “I didn’t create the shutdown.”

The other federal employees–some of whom continue to work–also need their paychecks.  That you cannot sustain the very thing you advocate is evidence that the thing you advocate is unsustainable.

Classic Krugman

Check out this video on Bloomberg.

The story goes something like this.  In the remark shown on the screen, Paul Krugman cautioned that he is not calling someone a name (via a Monty Python reference lost on the speaker), but rather questioning the evidence for his view.  The stunningly clueless commentator remarks that this is “classic Krugman” for “going after a person,” which is greeted with all sorts of agreement from the assembled panel brainless commentators.  She then refers to Niall Ferguson, who in his turn says Paul Krugman uses ad hominem arguments because he must have been abused as a child.  That, of course, is an actual ad hominem; Krugman’s is not.  You just cannot be this dumb.

Wherein David Brooks gets it partially right

Whenever a politician says something inexcusably horrible, you can rest assured that a parade of iron manners, that is, the sophists, will appear, attempting to make the weak argument appear stronger.  This has so far been the case with Mitt Romney's recent remarks, where he claimed that 47 percent of the population take no reponsibility for their lives.  Here are some of Romney's remarks (full transcript here).

Audience member: For the last three years, all everybody's been told is, "Don't worry, we'll take care of you." How are you going to do it, in two months before the elections, to convince everybody you've got to take care of yourself?

Romney: There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. And I mean, the president starts off with 48, 49, 48—he starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn't connect. And he'll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean that's what they sell every four years. And so my job is not to worry about those people—I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. What I have to do is convince the 5 to 10 percent in the center that are independents that are thoughtful, that look at voting one way or the other depending upon in some cases emotion, whether they like the guy or not, what it looks like. I mean, when you ask those people…we do all these polls—I find it amazing—we poll all these people, see where you stand on the polls, but 45 percent of the people will go with a Republican, and 48 or 4…

This time, in addition to the usual iron manners, a number of people who normally could be counted on to defend Romney have instead pointed out just how wrong his remarks are.  Here, surprisingly, is David Brooks:

This comment suggests a few things. First, it suggests that he really doesn’t know much about the country he inhabits. Who are these freeloaders? Is it the Iraq war veteran who goes to the V.A.? Is it the student getting a loan to go to college? Is it the retiree on Social Security or Medicare?

It suggests that Romney doesn’t know much about the culture of America. Yes, the entitlement state has expanded, but America remains one of the hardest-working nations on earth. Americans work longer hours than just about anyone else. Americans believe in work more than almost any other people. Ninety-two percent say that hard work is the key to success, according to a 2009 Pew Research Survey.

See the link for more.  Sadly, as Brooks gets that far, he can't seem to bring himself to the obvious conclusion:

Personally, I think he’s a kind, decent man who says stupid things because he is pretending to be something he is not — some sort of cartoonish government-hater. But it scarcely matters. He’s running a depressingly inept presidential campaign. Mr. Romney, your entitlement reform ideas are essential, but when will the incompetence stop?

The fact that he's pretending to be Rush Limbaugh makes it worse, not better.  And further, his entitlement reform ideas are not essential if he has no idea, as Brooks has accurately pointed out, what that even means.

The same basic respect, i.e., none.

It's been well over a week since conservative radio host made launched into a not-uncommon series of misogynisitic ad feminam attacks against a women speaking on an issue of concern to women.  The woman, Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown University Law student, was invited by Congress to speak on the issue of mandated contraception coverage for women.  The relevant part of her remarks can be read here.

Rush Limbaugh has such a long history of dishonesty and abuse that his views no longer deserve rational analysis.  I'm sorry for the millions of listeners who listen to him.  I'm especially sorry for those who listen only because they find his brand of humor funny.  It's best, I think, not to develop a taste for certain things.  

Some people defending Limbaugh, on the other hand, do warrant discussion.  Here is fairly well known professor of economics at the University of Rochester, Steve Landsburg.  

Rush Limbaugh is under fire for responding in trademark fashion to the congressional testimony of Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke, who wants you to pay for her contraception. If the rest of us are to share in the costs of Ms. Fluke’s sex life, says Rush, we should also share in the benefits, via the magic of online video. For this, Rush is accused of denying Ms. Fluke her due respect. 

But while Ms. Fluke herself deserves the same basic respect we owe to any human being, her position — which is what’s at issue here — deserves none whatsoever. It deserves only to be ridiculed, mocked and jeered. To treat it with respect would be a travesty. I expect there are respectable arguments for subsidizing contraception (though I am skeptical that there are arguments sufficiently respectable to win me over), but Ms. Fluke made no such argument. All she said, in effect, was that she and others want contraception and they don’t want to pay for it. 

To his credit, Rush stepped in to provide the requisite mockery. To his far greater credit, he did so with a spot-on analogy: If I can reasonably be required to pay for someone else’s sex life (absent any argument about externalities or other market failures), then I can reasonably demand to share in the benefits. His dense and humorless critics notwithstanding, I am 99% sure that Rush doesn’t actually advocate mandatory on-line sex videos. What he advocates is logical consistency and an appreciation for ethical symmetry. So do I. Color me jealous for not having thought of this analogy myself.

It is funny how so many of our debates concern the rules of our debates.  Many claim–correctly in my view–that Limbaugh broke basic argument rules, distorting a person's words to malign her (fallacious ad hominem attacks, straw men, etc.).  This fellow, Steven Landsburg, inexplicably, thinks Limbaugh has not in fact done this, but has rather zeroed in on the critical issue–whether you and I should pay for this woman to have sex.

That, however, wasn't nearly the point of Limbaugh's 46 or so tirades.  Here's one:

She's having so much sex she can't afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex. What does that make us? We're the pimps.

And Landsburg thinks only the word "slut" was out of order. 

There’s one place where I part company with Rush, though: He wants to brand Ms. Fluke a “slut” because, he says, she’s demanding to be paid for sex. There are two things wrong here. First, the word “slut” connotes (to me at least) precisely the sort of joyous enthusiasm that would render payment superfluous. A far better word might have been “prostitute” (or a five-letter synonym therefor), but that’s still wrong because Ms. Fluke is not in fact demanding to be paid for sex. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) She will, as I understand it, be having sex whether she gets paid or not. Her demand is to be paid. The right word for that is something much closer to “extortionist”. Or better yet, “extortionist with an overweening sense of entitlement”. Is there a single word for that?

I'm sad for this guy's students, his department, and his university.

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.

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.


Too much of our critical political discourse depends on one single virtue: consistency.  This is why Pat Buchanan, a man who writes articles (I am not exaggerating) in praise of Hitler–is a kind of pundit saint.  Since consistency matters, and consistency depends on memory–or rather, detecting someone's inconsistency depends on remembering what she's said in the past, let's have some fun with our favorite son on an economist, Robert Samuelson.  Samuelson, is like the captain bringdown of the Post editorial page.  He's got a droopy mustache, a dour expression, and he poo-poos just about everyone who tries to do something about something–environmentalists are dumb and self-indulgent for buying Priuses!. 

For a while–for those who remember–Samuelson been poo-pooing Obama's "self-indulgence" on health insurance reform.  A more competent rhetorical analyst, by the way, might have fun with the way he always goes ad hominem on Obama–treating his own impoverished and uncharitable image of Obama rather than Obama's stated positions (he even admitted once that this was his own problem).  But it's worthwhile to poke fun at Samuelson's priorities.  Way back before we spent 700 plus billion dollars in Iraq, chasing what turned out to be an easily uncovered deception, here is what Samuelon 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.

Pocket change.  In reflecting on this piece (called "A War We Can Afford") Samuelson wrote:

Yes, that column made big mistakes. The war has cost far more than I (or almost anyone) anticipated. Still, I defend the column's central thesis, which remains relevant today: Budget costs should not shape our Iraq policy. Frankly, I don't know what we should do now. But in considering the various proposals — President Bush's "surge," fewer troops or redeployment of those already there — the costs should be a footnote. We ought to focus mostly on what's best for America's security.

When it comes things that are actually real, on the other hand, Samuelson is skeptical:

When historians recount the momentous events of recent weeks, they will note a curious coincidence. On March 15, Moody's Investors Service — the bond rating agency — published a paper warning that the exploding U.S. government debt could cause a downgrade of Treasury bonds. Just six days later, the House of Representatives passed President Obama's health-care legislation costing $900 billion or so over a decade and worsening an already-bleak budget outlook.

900 billion?  That figure is almost exactly what we've spent in seven years of war.  Weird.  But this time cost is all that matters. 

Qui tacet consentire videtur

It really did not take long for George Will to engage in unwarranted triumphalism over the very selective violation of some scientists' right to engage in private and informal communication about their work.  He writes:

Disclosure of e-mails and documents from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) in Britain — a collaborator with the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — reveals some scientists' willingness to suppress or massage data and rig the peer-review process and the publication of scholarly work. The CRU materials also reveal paranoia on the part of scientists who believe that in trying to engineer "consensus" and alarm about warming, they are a brave and embattled minority. Actually, never in peacetime history has the government-media-academic complex been in such sustained propagandistic lockstep about any subject.

The story basically runs like this.  Some hacker broke into a server, stole, yes, stole a bunch of emails, and published them for the selective misinterpretation of people across the media-opinion complex–which, in this case includes the usual suspects, and, sadly enough, the Daily Show.  The emails show the scientists speaking candidly about their work and their frustration at the phony skepticism they have to answer.  Now comes George WIll, writing that answering phony skepticism (such as his) means one's certainty in one's view is not "unassailable":

The Post learns an odd lesson from the CRU materials: "Climate scientists should not let themselves be goaded by the irresponsibility of the deniers into overstating the certainties of complex science or, worse, censoring discussion of them." These scientists overstated and censored because they were "goaded" by skepticism?

Were their science as unassailable as they insist it is, and were the consensus as broad as they say it is, and were they as brave as they claim to be, they would not be "goaded" into intellectual corruption. Nor would they meretriciously bandy the word "deniers" to disparage skepticism that shocks communicants in the faith-based global warming community.

Skeptics about the shrill certitudes concerning catastrophic man-made warming are skeptical because climate change is constant: From millennia before the Medieval Warm Period (800 to 1300), through the Little Ice Age (1500 to 1850), and for millennia hence, climate change is always a 100 percent certainty. Skeptics doubt that the scientists' models, which cannot explain the present, infallibly map the distant future.

The Financial Times' peculiar response to the CRU materials is: The scientific case for alarm about global warming "is growing more rather than less compelling." If so, then could anything make the case less compelling? A CRU e-mail says: "The fact is that we can't account for the lack of warming at the moment" — this "moment" is in its second decade — "and it is a travesty that we can't."

The travesty is the intellectual arrogance of the authors of climate-change models partially based on the problematic practice of reconstructing long-term prior climate changes. On such models we are supposed to wager trillions of dollars — and substantially diminished freedom. [such as diminished right to privacy--non seq. eds].   

For a discussion of the Post's sloppy handling of the email theft start here (and for more on this particular piece start here).  Briefly, however, no one has been goaded into intellectual corruption–that's the Post's view (which Will confuses with actual fact).

Speaking more broadly, however, it's obvious the scientists who work on this stuff–I mean the ones with bonified credentials–are frustrated by the very vocal and well-funded parade of numbskulls who think the non-geometric certainty of models and of climate science in general entails that the thesis of anthropogenic climate change is all a role of the dice and that any skepticism, even the a prioristic George Will kind, is just as warranted as accumulated empirical research.

Sadly, however, the more detached from even a third-grader's understanding of the scientific method Will becomes, the more pressing he makes his case that any critique of him amounts to an apparent lack of confidence in the person doing the critiquing.  That strategy, however, is just silly: not answering George Will's silly denialism would no doubt amount to agreeing with it–or as he would put it, qui tacet consentire videtur!

The Green Hornet

When you have nothing to say against the actual arguments of your opponent–you know, her facts and inferences–you can always psychologize about her motives.  Cue the "you're just saying that because."  This, I think, would properly characterize George Will's response to any argument not his own (at least those which he doesn't straw man).  Today he enlists the help, as he often does, of a couple of fellows who say something he thinks makes his points about environmentalism, and by extension anything "liberal."  He writes:

In "The Green Bubble: Why Environmentalism Keeps Imploding" [the New Republic, May 20], Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, authors of "Break Through: Why We Can't Leave Saving the Planet to Environmentalists," say that a few years ago, being green "moved beyond politics." Gestures — bringing reusable grocery bags to the store, purchasing a $4 heirloom tomato, inflating tires, weatherizing windows — "gained fresh urgency" and "were suddenly infused with grand significance."

Green consumption became "positional consumption" that identified the consumer as a member of a moral and intellectual elite. A 2007 survey found that 57 percent of Prius purchasers said they bought their car because "it makes a statement about me." Honda, alert to the bull market in status effects, reshaped its 2009 Insight hybrid to look like a Prius.

You can read the original article at the link.  This article doesn't seem interested in the actual realities addressed by "the green movement."  Here's a taste:

Little surprise, then, that they would start buying a whole new class of products to demonstrate their ecological concern. Green consumption became what sociologists call "positional consumption"–consumption that distinguishes one as elite–and few things were more ecopositional than the Toyota Prius, whose advantage over other hybrid cars was its distinctive look. A 2007 survey that appeared in The New York Times found that more Prius owners (57 percent) said they bought the car because it "makes a statement about me" than because of its better gas mileage (36 percent), lower emissions (25 percent), or new technology (7 percent). Prius owners, the Times concluded, "want everyone to know they are driving a hybrid." The status effects were so powerful that, by early 2009, Honda's new Insight Hybrid had been reshaped to look like the triangular Prius.

Of course, for many greens, healing required more than a new kind of consumption, however virtuous. In The New York Times Magazine's 2008 Earth Day issue, Michael Pollan argued that climate change was at bottom a crisis of lifestyle and personal character–"the sum of countless little everyday choices"–and suggested that individual actions, such as planting backyard gardens, might ultimately be more important than government action to repair the environment. Pollan half-acknowledged that growing produce in your backyard was ecologically irrelevant, but "there are sweeter reasons to plant that garden," he wrote. "[Y]ou will have begun to heal the split between what you think and what you do, to commingle your identities as consumer and producer and citizen."

And so forth.  One can always find someone who participates in mass action whose motives are not directly in line with the goals of the mass action.  But hey, that doesn't say much.  Some Nazis, after all, were just in it for the chicks.  That doesn't make their Nazism any less horrible.

Ad hominem arguments

Here's a link to an article in Scientfic American mind about various kinds of ad hominem arguments.  Yvonne Raley, the author, writes:

Although ad hominem arguments have long been considered errors in reasoning, a recent analysis suggests that this is not always the case. In his new book, Media Argumentation: Dialectic, Persuasion, and Rhetoric, University of Winnipeg philosopher Douglas Walton proposes that fallacies such as the ad hominem are better understood as perversions or corruptions of perfectly good arguments. Regarding the ad hominem, Walton contends that although such attacks are usually fallacious, they can be legitimate when a character critique is directly or indirect­ly related to the point being articulated.

If Walton is right, distinguishing clearly between these cases is important to evaluating the validity of statements people make to us about others. Good or fair uses of ad hominem critiques should, in fact, persuade us, whereas unwarranted uses should not.

I'd say indeed.  But this seems to me somewhat obvious–and the distinction between good and bad character attacks–a central feature of any notion of a fallacy.  All fallacies, I'd argue at least, seem like good pieces of reasoning–and have, as a result, close non-fallacious cousins.  Some analogies are good, some are bad.  The ones that are particularly bad we might call "weak analogies of the fallacious variety."  Some personal attacks are obviously legitimate–when character is an issue (as it often is).  Some are not.  The ones that aren't we might call "ad hominem."  The others we might call something else.