The Ad Hominem…. I will venture to say that this is almost everyone’s favorite logical fallacy, regardless if you are the purveyor of “woo”(better known as pseudoscience) or the skeptic. Or, at least, this seems to be everyone’s favorite logical fallacy to MAKE! It’s never fun to be on the receiving end of it…
Let’s start with the definition of the word in modern day usage. From Latin, literally meaning “to the person”, an ad hominem attack is defined as a rejection of an argument or claim because of a non-related fact of the entity making the argument. I say fact as while it is true that you cannot dismiss the argument of an opponent because of a non-related fact or opinion, you can still HAVE an opinion of an opponent: “Bob is a pedantic ass” is just an opinion of Bob. Saying “Bob’s take on homeopathy is wrong because Bob is a pedantic ass” is an ad hominem. The basic argument from a believer of “woo” might go like this: “You skeptics are closed-minded! That is why your argument against my claim is wrong!”. Whether or not the skeptic is close-minded or not has nothing to do with the validity of the purveyor of “woo”s claims.
We, as critical thinkers, must be wary of ourselves as it is FAR too easy to fall into using ad hominems against true believers. You cannot dismiss the argument of the true believer by saying that they are “all insane”, as that is very much not the case for a large majority of the people that believe. Most of them can be very sane in every other part of their lives and can be quite sane about the topic they are arguing about (whether the topic is even close to the truth is another matter).
Here’s another thing: You can also flip ad hominems on their heads. Even if you have avoided all of the above pitfalls, acknowledged to yourself that you shouldn’t commit an ad hominem, and realize that your opinion of the person isn’t a valid rebuttal of their premise, you can still be on the path to a logical fallacy; or, at least a subset of the fallacy. If you are in a public debate with someone, you should even refrain from speaking your opinion of the other party. Why, you might ask? By voicing your opinion, you are committing what is known as “poisoning the well”. This subset is done by hinting that the other party has qualities that are untrustworthy. If you are aware of “Godwin’s law” (http://tinyurl.com/6cnjm), you have a good understanding of “poisoning the well”. If you don’t know what Godwin’s law is, it’s pretty simple and you’ve probably seen it before. In1990, lawyer and author, Mike Godwin, stated that given enough time, any online conversation about any topic, someone will inevitably make a correlation to Hitler or the Nazi regime. This has become a meme within the internet culture. Another meme closely related to Godwin’s law is “Don’t be that guy”….
Until next time!
Contributor: Jonathan Tindell
A native Floridian living in Pennsylvania, eight year veteran of the United States Maine Corp that is in support of responsible gun control, and salesperson in the Oil and Gas industry that believes in climate change, Jonathan is almost the definition of a dichotomy.
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