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On Ad Hominems

The obvious conclusion to draw from a repeated stream of ad hominem attacks and observations against a person, group or perhaps even an idea, is that those casting the aspersions have little logic, theory or evidence to actually engage with the ideas (and people) that they seem to find so repulsive. We shall not go through the litany of illustrations here. For the sake of today’s post, I’d like to ask a question about the consistency of the ad homimen-ers.

While it may seem like an obvious “attack” to question the motivations and influences of people who make arguments you disagree with, why is it the case that “where do you get your money” takes center stage in the arguments over other plausible influences? We explored a few posts ago the obvious inconsistency of folks not questioning the major sources of funding for all of our livelihoods, and we know of course that few ad hominem-ers care enough to ask, “what research have you done and have you carefully considered the various logical and empirical arguments?”, no, I refer to something else. Why, for example, do we think that even large amounts of money are the primary motivators and shapers of the views we hold and make public? Are the ad hominer-ers so much on board with science denial that they forget the very deep impact that parental ideology has on child ideology? To keep this a little light, do we think that my daughter’s current passion for hockey emerged spontaneously after first a careful consideration of the benefits of athletic development versus a less active lifestyle and second after considering the benefits and costs (including injury risks, probability of making lifetime relationships, etc.) of playing hockey as opposed to some other sport? OK, so in the world of ad hominem attacks, why then do we privilege monetary influences over, say, parental influences?

As a teacher, and one who has been influenced (and repelled) by many a teacher myself, I can’t help by think that a more useful “attack” would be to ask, “what teachers did you have in high school and college?” Maybe you could even impugn the financial payments made to them too? Or perhaps a better ad hominem approach would be to ask, “what group of people are you trying to be friends with, find acceptance by, and curry favor with?” Surely the answers to those questions, while still being anti-reason and anti-science and dodging the real issues, have nonetheless more information in them than the, “you’re a paid shill of the Kochtopus, so we don’t have to consider anything you say?”

Finally, I’ll ask two rhetorical questions. First, how many of the views you hold (on all sides of the various spectra) are actually held after a careful, scientific examination of the ideas and arguments and studies that comprise the field? Second, how much evidence for competing ideas and views have you read? I suggest that a healthy exercise is not to get into Facebook or Twitter wars with people whom you disagree with, I do not think you will learn anything that way. No, I think the best course of action is to “put the little devil on your shoulder” and have a deep conversation with her or him. Test yourself, see if you would pass an ideological Turing Test, see what things you would want to know if you disagreed with the positions you currently hold, and then, on occassion, perhaps go public with your own skepticism of yourself. It is healthier and more productive.

Disclaimer: I was not paid, directly at least, to post this blog post.

3 Responses to “On Ad Hominems”

  1. Trapper_John says:

    Couple of points. First, I think it boils down to people lacking familiarity with public choice economics or rejecting it for other reasons. People want someone in authority that they feel they can trust, whether they can or not. “Who were your teachers?” is, as you say, incredibly relevant and important, but impugning Academe is too large an indictment for people to wrestle with. Just as those who govern were selected to do a job and must be trusted to do that job with integrity, so teachers are selected to do a job and must be trusted as well (or so some believe).

    Second, it’s difficult not to be intellectually sloppy. My own reaction when listening to other viewpoints is inherent distrust. Too many times I have heard what appeared to be sound logic and strong statistics only to find out later it was all/mostly untrue (example: Al Gore’s graph showing increasing numbers of tornados, a trend explained by improvements in weather radar/detection of tornados). It’s tedious to personally run down every new shred of evidence that undermines my beliefs (not every graph is easily explained as Mr. Gore’s), and the path often leads to me reading journal articles outside my own expertise. I’d rather play golf.

    So, how to deal with the seemingly irreducible complexity of so many issues? I like your suggestions, but at some point, the layperson has to exercise faith. Not to pick on climate change, but this is why the 97% number is so critical. I read Warren Meyer (coyoteblog.com) and find his arguments on the topic quite compelling, but that is my predisposition. Someone lacking that same predisposition would be hard-pressed to overcome such a powerful counter-argument from authority as the 97% statistic. Maybe this explains the Left’s obsession with Fox News, the Kochs, “deniers”, etc.; not that anyone will be swayed by them directly, but that people shouldn’t trust the Right as a group. Undermined trust plus the need for faith in the face of complexity equals victory in the battle for hearts and minds.

    • Not to mention how hard it is to understand, well, anything with anything resembling profundity. And as anyone who has ever had the misfortune of finding himself on Mother Jones’s website knows, cultivating deep understanding is a pursuit journalists and urban liberals splitting their free time between the vegan co-op in Brooklyn and a worn paperback copy of Zizek’s printed excreta apparently refuse to even consider.

      What’s not hard is to read the 8th-grade-level verbal slop ladled out of the Salon or HuffPo ad hominem machine on an hourly basis. Or to watch the juvenile, sophomoric excuse for a satirical comedy show that is The Daily Show and giving a self-satisfied chuckle every time one’s unconsidered biases are, again, reaffirmed.

  2. sherlock says:

    While on Nantucket, a friend of mine commented on how much smaller the island must be now, as compared to 200 yeas ago, due to global warming and sea level rise. She also has her steadfast beliefs in recycling and reusable bags (and how other people SHOULD do it) as a means to save the planet. I never contest or try to argue with her one bit.

    The BEST result I have ever achieved during an argument with someone is that they might concede that they haven’t looked into an issue as thoroughly as they thought they have. And you need an insurmountable fact to achieve this result. The usual argument generally devolves into the ad hominen variety within about 10 seconds. Thus, I avoid these types of conversations as they don’t produce anything of value to me. Any “debate” I ever get in is to simply ask why the person thinks the way they do. I don’t contest that they are wrong and I am right or even that I necessarily disagree with them. This is usually followed by some “ahhh’s” and “ummm’s” or goes straight to strawmen or ad hominen attacks. While I do concede that it can be difficult to draw from memory on the spot facts that support your view, you can immediately tell the difference between someone who has researched and thought about the issue on their own over a going with the herd guy.

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