It’s a start

This is one of the dumbest ad hominem arguments I’ve seen in a major newspaper for quite a while:

>My younger son calls the Toyota Prius a “hippie car,” and he has a point. Not that Prius drivers are hippies. Toyota says that typical buyers are 54 and have incomes of $99,800; 81 percent are college graduates. But, like hippies, they’re making a loud lifestyle statement: We’re saving the planet; what are you doing?

>This helps explain why the Prius so outsells the rival Honda Civic Hybrid. Both have similar base prices, about $22,000, and fuel economy (Prius, 60 miles per gallon city/51 highway; Civic, 49 mpg city/51 highway). But Prius sales in the first half of 2007 totaled 94,503, nearly equal to all of 2006. Civic sales were only 17,141, up 7.4 percent from 2006. The Prius’s advantage is its distinct design, which announces its owners as environmentally virtuous. It’s a fashion statement. Meanwhile, the Civic hybrid can’t be distinguished by appearance from the polluting, gas-guzzling mob.

The dumb thing is that Samuelson doesn’t even disagree with the idea of cutting greenhouse gas emissions (he’s not a George Will global warming denier). Later in the piece he argues that very drastic things ought to be done:

>But we’ve got to start somewhere, right? Okay, here’s what Congress should do: (a) gradually increase fuel economy standards for new vehicles by at least 15 miles per gallon; (b) raise the gasoline tax over the same period by $1 to $2 a gallon to strengthen the demand for fuel-efficient vehicles and curb driving; (c) eliminate tax subsidies (mainly the mortgage interest rate deduction) for housing, which push Americans toward ever-bigger homes. (Note: If you move to a home 25 percent larger and then increase energy efficiency 25 percent, you don’t save energy.)

Samuelson’s problem is that actions such as driving a Prius are not adequate by themselves to curb the accumulation of greenhouse gases. He uses his son’s hippie comment (why are people beating up on hippies now?) to impugn the motives of people who advocate measures that are partial or inadequate. They only do so because it’s fashionable. They don’t really want to curb global warming because they don’t wish for the hard things.

There doesn’t, however, seem to be any reason to think that. At least none that Samuelson offers. And it’s probably the case that no one thinks such measures (driving a Prius vs. a Honda Hybrid) are adequate in the first place. But just because such individual actions are inadequate by themselves, doesn’t mean they and the people who do them are shallow and worthless.

5 thoughts on “It’s a start”

  1. Samuelson also apparently can’t do math: “(Note: If you move to a home 25 percent larger and then increase energy efficiency 25 percent, you don’t save energy.)”

  2. I’m not sure how the ad hominem functions here. It looks like Samuleson argues

    a) Buying a Prius won’t affect global warming significantly.
    b) Therefore, Prius buyers are motivated by fashion not environmentalism.

    There’s a second argument:

    a) Prius and Civic are equally beneficial to the environment.
    b) Prius outsells Civic.
    c) Prius is distinctively designed.
    d) It’s distinctive design is a significant reason it outsells Civic.
    e) Therefore, (many) Prius buyers are motivated by distinctive design = fashion = being thought to be environmentally concerned.

    I suspect that most people look at that 60 mpg vs 49 mpg difference that Samuelson mentions and infer that the Prius does in fact use less gas and so is environmentally more friendly. This seems like a much simpler explanation (“20% more fuel efficient for the same price, I’ll take it!”). So I would fault Samuelson as offering a weak argument about motivation. But, of course, Samuelson’s aim is to connect a series of economic and social facts (relative wealth and high degree of education) with the motivation. And there lies what seems to be the ad hominem. But, I’m not sure it is actually ad hominem, rather than just a cheap argument.

    It ends up as a type of George Will’s favorite argument–argument by sneering. I’m not sure how to describe it, but it’s a pretty common argument form.

    a) Person X claims (noble) motivation Y for action Z.
    b) Motivation Y cannot be the whole cause of action Z.
    c) Person X gains (less noble–often psychological) benefit W from action Z. [Or similar premise designed to support attribution of more cynical cause/motivation]
    d) Therefore, W likely motivates action Z.

  3. Good points.

    I think I was being elliptical about the ad hominem. I probably am elliptical often about fallacy identification, as I have more interest in the virtues or vices of the particular argument before me than the classification of fallacy types. I should, however, probably do both.

    In any case, I think the ad hominem consists in the sneering attack on the motivations of person x for action y, as if to say, “you’re just doing that because you want to look cool.” But, as you correctly point out, there’s a significant MPG difference between the Honda and the Prius, but Samuelson doesn’t offer any evidence (other than his son’s silly remark) that those are the motivations of the people buying the car. So I’d say it’s a groundless and mean-spirited attack on the motivations (not the arguments) of environmentalists.

  4. As for the math issue:

    He’s only slightly wrong. If you move to a house 25 percent larger (assume energy use is linear/directly proportional), but is 25 percent more energy efficient, the new house will use about 94% of the energy of the old house (close enough, I think).

    1.00×1.00=1.00 energy use for house 1
    .75×1.25=.9375 energy use for house 2

    But it’s true that the mathematical reasoning we can assume he used (i.e. addition/subtraction) was incorrect. Although his general point (that the energy you save by being more energy efficient is largely cancelled out if you have a bigger house, car, whatever) is still valid.

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