Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The problem with ad hominem

As so eloquently illustrated in Jeff Borchardt's editorial 'Hounded', and as is the experience of virtually every outspoken dangerous dog victim and awareness advocate (including meself!), nutters love to cyber-stalk a person and pick apart their lives in a ceaseless smear campaign.  They attack anything and everything they can; the way a person dresses, talks, where they work, where they live, what pets they have, how many children they have, their weight, their diet, their skin/hair, their religious views, their hobbies, political views, past experiences and mistakes, etc.. 

 They deserve no further recognition, but nutters run various hate pages on Facebook and blogs, updated daily (so I hear, I avoid them for the plague and garbage they are, and though I know you mean well, folks who contact me about this crap, I follow the golden rule when it comes to bullies--ignore them, do not feed them, they want your energy and attention, they desperately need validation of any kind). 

 They do these things in a puerile attempt to raze a person, in the vain hopes that besmirching a person's character is the key to destroying their credibility and shutting them up.  This kind of personal attack in response to a well-stated argument is, unfortunately, a common evidence of the failure of our educational system, because anyone with a basic education should be well aware of what this is--ad hominem.

A flawed character is not grounds for dismissing the validity of a person's extra-personal observations and assertions.  Insisting that nothing a person says is valid in any area because they have been less than stellar people in another area is not only fallacious but utterly unrealistic... because no human being is perfect in all aspects of life--mistakes and flaws are a promise of human existence itself.  If only perfect, infallible people are to be believed, we must discard the observations and achievements of virtually everything we know and everything that makes us intelligible, civilized creatures.  This is the problem with ad hominem (personal attacks, impugning ones character in a fallacious attempt to discredit the person issuing the argument, rather than discrediting the argument itself).

The only time, say, calling someone a liar is going to effectively work in discrediting their argument is if you
 1.) can verifiable prove the person is a liar
 2.) with evidence that is relevant to the argument. 
 #2 is the biggie!  #2 is non-negotiable.  Saying Joe Blow cheated on his taxes is not relevant to arguing, say, what the most efficient smelting method is at the foundry.  If you were arguing money matters, perhaps, but for something wholly unrelated it just isn't pertinent.  A real life example;

Albert Einstein's personal life was considerably less honorable than his academic achievements; he fathered an illegitimate child with his first wife before they were married, and the baby disappeared from documented existence.  He set strange rules for his wife, detailing that "she had to serve three meals day, to stop talking if he asked her to, and to expect no intimacy from him."  However, he had enough intimacy to spare to court many mistresses (though in his writings he claimed their affection was unwanted too; however, not unwanted enough to avoid extramarital affairs with them); among them his first cousin paternally (and second cousin maternally), whom he left his first wife for, to marry.  Mental illness was a specter in his family; his second son, Eduard, was deeply afflicted with schizophrenia at age 20 and spent his life in and out of (at the end, perpetually in) asylums.  

However strange and deplorable his personal romantic exploits, one cannot use them to fault and argue on the validity of his other work; the theories of relativity, gravitational fields, particles, motion of molecules, light photons (photoelectric effect), the principles of equivalence and adiabatic invariance, the injustice of racism (he was a member of NAACP), his academic teachings on theoretical physics, thermodynamics, and analytical mechanics, and research on uranium and chain reaction (nuclear fission, the Manhattan project).

No, to discredit Einstein's scientific bodies of work would take something in kind--other bodies of scientific work, evidence, etc..  Where Einstein chose to sling his trouser snake has nothing to do with  the math of quantum mechanics. Were Einstein's work the research, study, and teaching of dangerous dogs, no doubt every little aspect of his personal life would be open game to the critics (nutters), even his unfortunate schizophrenic son.  I know SABSL* advocates with autistic or mildly disabled children and the vocal ones have had those innocents attacked and smeared in the vicious, frothing frenzy that is angry dog fanatics. 

 The scope and intensity of their virulence is precisely why the term 'nutter' exists... and as an aside, for those new to the issue, 'nutter' does not encompass ALL dangerous dog owners; just those who are deceptive, aggressive bullies and/or stalkers.  A pit bull owner with an open mind that truly listens and does not worry a debunked claim like their dog with a bone, but instead absorbs and seeks to learn anything they can to be as cautious and careful as they can--truly understanding all the facets of their dangerous dog breed... is not a nutter.  Little known fact is there ARE dangerous dog owners in SABSL groups who get along just fine, and do work together toward creating safer communities. 

 These are the people who understand that their dogs aren't fit for public consumption and were perhaps acquired with the best of misguided intentions.  However, now having all the evidence before them, they stop with perpetuating dangerous myths and stop with excusing (any/every attack) and abusing (victims, victim blaming, wild speculation, etc.).
Sadly, these people are far too rare.
I digress.

What is SABSL? An umbrella acronym for safety/awareness/breed-specific legislation advocates.

Other Bad Boys in History
Oscar Wilde
Pablo Picasso
Julius Caesar
Errol Flynn
Elvis Presley
Alexander the Great
King Charles II
Percy Shelley
John F. Kennedy
Benjamin Franklin
Lord Byron
Howard Hughes
Sir Walter Raleigh

Rational Wiki has an excellent article describing the ins and outs of this logical fallacy known as ad hominem.  From this Wiki:

Defining ad hominem

The phrase ad hominem argument (often called an ad hominem attack) comes from the Latin "to the person." It also sometimes applies to any argument that centers on emotive (specifically irrelevant emotions) rather than rational or logical appeal.

As most people use the phrase in recent times, an ad hominem argument occurs when one attacks the person making an argument rather than the argument itself. It is therefore a special case of the broader category of formal logical fallacies, the non sequitur, in which the conclusion urged, e.g. that the disputant is incorrect, does not follow from the premise asserted, e.g. that the disputant is a dick.[1] Even if the ad hominem attack is true, e.g. the disputant really is a dick, that fact has no bearing on whether the disputant's argument is logically sound.
          How ad hominem works

Ad hominem arguments work via the halo effect, a cognitive bias in which the perception of one trait is influenced by the perception of an unrelated trait, e.g.treating an attractive person as more intelligent or more honest. People tend to see others as tending to all good or tending to all bad. Thus, if you can attribute a bad trait to your opponent, others will tend to doubt the quality of your opponent's arguments. 
Subtle uses

Often, ad hominem attacks are used subtly in order to influence the views of spectators. There are many forms of this, such as pointing out bad things they (the opponent) have done in the past in arguments about morality (they are not attacking the person's points about morality, they are attacking the person), or using exclamations (for example, "Jeez!") to imply that the person is incredibly slow at understanding your point. 
Blatant uses

Ad hominem attacks are hardly ever used plainly, and people who do are generally trolls who want to provoke people to fight. These are often partnered with not even responding to the person's post, using arguments that make no sense, and thus have never been heard of, then mocking their opponent when they fail to find a rebuttal, and many other such techniques. 
False positives

Ad hominem attacks are strictly fallacious when the attack has little or no bearing on the argument at hand, for example, dismissing a female scientist's opinion on a subject because she is a woman would be a fallacious ad hominem argument - dismissing it on grounds of insufficient qualification or experience would not be, although it may fall into other fallacious categories and may constitute a Courtier's Reply. Similarly, pointing out someone's known track record on a subject would also not count. For instance, YouTube creationist VenomFangX has a past history of filing false DMCA claims, and it would not be an ad hominem attack to bring this up should he file another. It would be an ad hominem however, if it was brought up to refute one of his YEC claims.
Calling someone an idiot when you have explained the evidence five times and they still refuse to address it, or provide counterexamples, is not an ad hominem attack, but rather a valid logical conclusion based on their actions. Similarly, tacking an insult onto the end of any argument might be bad form, but it doesn't automatically make it an ad hominem. It's only an ad hominem if you say the other person must be wrong because they are an idiot - not the other way round.
Creationists sometimes make the mistake of calling a personal insult an ad hominem attack when it is not intended to address the truth or falsity of the creationist's claim, but merely to denigrate the creationist. Likewise, creationists are known to mis-characterize logically sound arguments as ad hominem attacks in an attempt to obscure the soundness of the argument or their burden to respond by making an emotional appeal.
A criticism is also not an ad hominem argument if a person's merits are actually the topic of the argument. A habitual liar is not physically incapable of telling the truth, and therefore dismissing their claims entirely is not valid, but it is certainly not incorrect to weigh their testimony as less trustworthy than that of someone with a reputation for studious honesty if comparing contradictory claims by the two.
SRUV put it best when they wrote "An entire genre of the advocacy movement has developed based not on evaluating the data but on character assassination." (In regards to the constant assaults on investigative journalist and humanitarian Merritt Clifton, but it is a route taken with all scientists, investigators, victim advocacy groups, and writers whose findings defy the propaganda machine; dogsbite.org, Animals 24-7daxtonsfriends.com, Walk for Victims of Pit Bulls (and other Dangerous Dogs), Barbara Kay, Alexandra Semyonova, Jeff Borchardt, etc.)  In fact, these raze-the-ground tactics are such a default modus operandi of 'pit bull advocacy' that exposes on these crimes against human decency are myriad enough to span an entire blog; Scorched Earth: The Politics of Pit Bulls.  

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