Sunday, March 05, 2006

Two intellectually bankrupt argumentative tactics

As follows:

1. "You're getting angry. Thererefore, there must be some merits to the argument you are attacking."

Ridiculous for transparently obvious reasons. The emotional tenor of a debater has no bearing on the correctness or incorrectness of his or her argument. Yet, this tactic is frequently employed in all seriousness, usually by people who have no better counterargument to put forward.

Now, for any particular person, there may be some statistical correlation between one's emotional tenor and one's beliefs about the merits of the argument under discussion. For example, when a position with which I disagree has some merits or subtlety, then I can take some intellectual pleasure in figuring out why it's still wrong. In such cases, my prose tends to remain fairly neutral in tone --- see, for example, my discussion of the death penalty versus war.

However, when an argument strikes me as having no redeeming features whatsoever, then I transmogrify into a volcanic fountain of vitriol and contempt. See, for example, my post about Jonah Goldberg.

In such situations, there are several possibilities. Either the person making the argument knows that it's ridiculous, or he does not. In the former case, he's trying to deceive his audience by making the argument. In the latter case, either he hasn't thought very hard about the argument he's making, which means he's consciously wasting his audience's time, or he's too stupid to see how flimsy his argument is. Now, if he's deceiving his audience, or wasting his audience's time, then I claim that anger (or at least contempt) is, in fact, the proper response to his behavior. He's inflicting harm on his audience, and some altruistic punishment is in order. Only in the last case --- i.e., he's too stupid to see the flaws in his argument --- does he deserve any sympathy. And frankly, when that stupidity is paired with arrogance, as it so frequently is, it's really hard to muster sympathy even in that case.

Now, once again, none of this really demonstrates anything about the merits of the argument under discussion. I could be furious, but mistaken. I just thought it might be worth explaining when and why I, personally, tend to display anger in my own writing when an argument's absolute nonsense.

2. "You just claimed that I possess [bad trait X]. Therefore, you are engaging in ad hominem and your argument is wrong."

Also ridiculous for transparently obvious reasons. People who use this argument unadorned do not understand what ad hominem means --- it denotes an argument wherein one makes the following (invalid) chain of inference:

  • Person P has the property X.
  • X is bad.
  • Therefore, the argument A advanced by P is invalid.

Notice that ad hominem is not a synonym for "insult". If you make a charge of ad hominem, then it does not suffice to show that someone has been insulted. It is necessary to show that the insult was used as evidence that the argument is unsound.

However, I often see the above argument confused with the following one:

  • Person P advanced argument A.
  • Argument A is so ridiculous that it could only be advanced by someone having property X.
  • Therefore, P has the property X.

Now, this chain of argument is perfectly valid. In most cases, it does not take a terribly discerning eye to distinguish this argument from the prior one. If you attack the person first, and use that attack to back up a conclusion about the argument, you probably have argumentum ad hominem. If you attack the argument first, and use it to back up a conclusion about the person's character, then you probably have the latter argument. Nevertheless, many people fail to distinguish the two, and thereby reveal themselves to be idiots.

Exercise for the reader: Which one is the last sentence of the previous paragraph?

A final note: Use of either of the above argumentative tactics demonstrates mere intellectual bankruptcy. To use both of them at once requires a special, additional helping of argumentative incompetence --- because, of course, the first argument is actually a form of genuine ad hominem.

p.s. In case you're curious as to what prompted this, all of the above has been a way of mining some usefulness from this random babbling (which came up on Technorati links here) by extracting general rules from a specific instance of intellectual bankruptcy. You can, perhaps, amuse yourself by counting how many times this writer (who claims to have some training in philosophy) makes the above errors, but you're probably better off not clicking the link.


  1. I'm the writer that prompted this confused article on "intellectually bankrupt" argumentative tactics. The writer accuses me of making both errors. The first error I make is apparently attributing validity to various arguments about ID because the authors of those arguments are getting angry. I can't see where I do any such thing. In fact, I agree with this author that, "the emotional tenor of a debater has no bearing on the correctness or incorrectness of his or her argument." That was the point of my article.

    The second error I apparently commit is this (if I follow): a writer accuses me of having some bad trait. I turn around and claim that the author is committing an ad hominem and dismiss his argument. Since the writer gives no examples of where I do this, I'm not sure exactly where I make such a claim. In any case, the author badly misunderstands the ad hominem.

    There are three types of ad hominem: the ad hominem abusive, the ad hominem circumstantial, and the tu quoque. The ad hominem that concerns us here is the first type, the ad hominem abusive. To quote from Hurley's classic text, "In the ad hominem abusive, the second person responds to the first person's argument by verbally abusing the first person. Example: Poet Allen Ginsberg has argued in favor of abolishing censorship of pornographic literature. But Ginsberg's arguments are nothing but trash. Ginsberg, you know, is a marijuana-smoking homosexual and a thoroughgoing advocate of the drug culture." (p. 120, Fifth Edition)

    In my article, I note that the author of The Abstract Factory commits just this kind of ad hominem multiple times. I note that in response to a parody on ID he authored, he writes the following to his readers:

    ""If you're a creationist or IDiot, and you're suddenly possessed by the urge to comment on this post, please don't bother. I know what you're going to say."

    "The thing that you're about to write is not only wrong, but transparently, stupidly, embarrassingly wrong, so wrong that it makes me wince inwardly with shame at the fact that you're a member of the same human race that I am."

    "Really, creationists and Intelligent Design advocates are the same thing, just like a clown and a clown carrying an umbrella are really the same thing."

    "If someone believes in Intelligent Design, I believe (s)he's either a nutball, or simultaneously ignorant and too lazy to take elementary steps to remedy their ignorance."

    These are paradigm cases of abusive ad hominems. The author may wish to emotionally lash out at people he disagrees with but in generally he's committing an informal fallacy when he does so. My article was an attempt to point that out.

  2. First, the word "fallacy" denotes an error in reasoning. An insult only becomes ad hominem when it is used to undermine the argument under discussion --- otherwise there is no error in reasoning.

    In the example you quote, the argument is for the abolition of censorship. The putative ad hominem is the implication that Allen Ginsberg's sexual habits and drug use somehow undermine his argument about abolishing censorship. This is exactly an instance of the first argument type outlined under (2) above --- i.e., a genuine ad hominem.

    All the insults in my post on Intelligent Design, by contrast, are of the second type under (2) above. That is, I state that ID is nonsense, and I incidentally adduce that people who believe in ID are fools. At no point do I use the foolishness of ID proponents to argue that ID is unsound --- exactly the converse. In your comment, you have exactly proven my point about your inability to understand the difference between ad hominem and a plain old insult, or in other words between an implication and its converse.

    I regretfully confess that I am unsurprised that you cannot distinguish between P -> Q and Q -> P. I suggest you draw a few truth tables, which I found to be a helpful exercise when I was in middle school.

    Furthermore, if you can't locate the tactics I describe in your own post, then I suggest you read it again. For example, you state that the anger of ID opponents is evidence that their opposition to ID is not "rational" but based on the fact that "people just don't like their worldview attacked". The obvious implication is this somehow undermines arguments against ID. (In doing so, of course, you are committing ad hominem circumstantial, but who's counting?)

    Finally, incidentally, I want to comment on your suggestion (from your original post) that scientists respond to ID as they respond to Flat Earthism. ID is a well-funded national movement that's aimed at undermining fundamental science education in this country. Flat Earthism is not. ID has millions of adherents, systematicaly misled by well-paid and credentialed propagandists who write glossy hardcovers found in every large bookstore. Flat Earthism has a handful of lunatics distributing photocopied leaflets. If a blogger with any traffic at all writes that Intelligent Design is unscientific, then a flood of ignorant comments gushes in from all corners of the Earth claiming that there's no evidence for evolution. If a blogger writes that the Earth is round, then nothing happens.

    Think about that for a second. If you sincerely believe that a fringe element with virtually no adherents should be treated the same way as a well-funded national political movement with masses of followers, then you're either incredibly disingenuous, or an idiot.

    Exercise for the reader: was the last sentence above argumentum ad hominem, or the converse?