What should have been a relatively academic conversation has become a feud, and I’m already finding it rather tiresome. I’m Phil Plait’s proverbial “dick,” you see, because I referenced an obscure little movie from twelve whole years ago made by a pair of independent directors with only, like, two Academy Awards to their names, and starring a bunch of unknown Oscar-winning actors, which only ranks #135 in IMDB’s Top 250 films of all time. Maybe it would have been better if I’d referenced a series of porn videos of drunk young women.
Also, because I’m snarky and sarcastic. Well, okay, guilty as charged.
So I’m exactly what Phil Plait was referring to, even though Phil’s clarifications make me suspect that even he doesn’t know exactly what he was referring to, and his speech has become a Rorschach Test for whatever tactic(s) any particular skeptic wants to authoritatively decry. Sure, fine, whatever. I’ve been called worse. By myself, no less.
Anyway, Junior Skeptic’s Daniel Loxton weighed in on Skepdude’s tweet:
Now, I’m no great fan of Loxton. I was; I enjoy Junior Skeptic, and I like his Evolution book. But I disagree with nearly everything he writes on skepticism, I think he tends to adopt a very condescending tone and a very authoritarian attitude over the skeptical movement (such as it is), and I lose a great deal of respect for anyone–especially a skeptic–who blocks people for disagreeing with them. You can read through my Twitter feed, if you like; I defy you to find any abuse or insult which would justify blockage.
So that’s my stated bias out of the way. I address Loxton’s point here not out of bitterness, but out of genuine surprise that someone who is so vocal and respected in the skeptical movement could be so very wrong about basic logical fallacies like ad hominem and poisoning the well. I also can’t help but feel a little prophetic with that whole last post I wrote about sloppy thinking.
Edit: I also want to offer a brief point in defense of Daniel Loxton: being a Twitter user, and knowing the limitations of the medium, it’s possible that truncating his thoughts in that medium impeded what he was trying to say, and that the mistakes are due less to sloppy thinking or misunderstanding, and more to trying to fit complex thoughts into ~140 characters. That being said, the proper place to make such a complex point without sacrificing clarity would have been here, at the linked post, in the comment section.
Loxton’s first claim, as I understand it, is that most insults belong to the “poisoning the well” subcategory of the ad hominem fallacy. This is wrong on a couple of levels. While poisoning the well is indeed a subcategory of ad hominem, neither category can be said, by any reasonable standard, to include “most insults.”
A little background: the ad hominem fallacy belongs to a category of fallacies of relevance, which are arguments whose premises offer insufficient support for their conclusions, and which are generally used to divert or obscure the topic of a debate. Ad hominem accomplishes this in one of two related ways: attempting to draw a conclusion about someone’s argument or points or claims by relying on an irrelevant personal attack, and by attempting to divert the topic of a debate from claims and arguments to the character of one of the debaters.
It becomes fairly easy, then, to see why “most insults” do not qualify as the ad hominem fallacy: most insults are not arguments. A logical fallacy, by definition, is an error in reasoning; in order for something to qualify as a fallacy, it must at least make an attempt at reasoning. If I say “Kevin Trudeau is a motherfucker,” I’m not making any actual argument. There are no premises, there is no conclusion, there is no attempt at reasoning, and so there can be no fallacy.
In order for there to be fallacious reasoning, there must first be some attempt at reasoning, which requires some semblance of premises and a conclusion. “Kevin Trudeau says colloidal silver is a useful remedy. But Kevin Trudeau is an idiot. So, yeah,” is more obviously fallacious (even though, as Skepdude would happily and correctly point out, the conclusion–“therefore Kevin Trudeau is wrong about colloidal silver”–is only implied). The implied conclusion is not sufficiently justified by the premises; that abusive second premise says nothing about the truth or falsehood of Kevin Trudeau’s claim. Even if it’s true, even an idiot is capable of valid arguments and true statements.
I could leave this here, I suppose; if poisoning the well is indeed a subcategory of ad hominem fallacies, and “most insults” are not in fact ad hominem fallacies, then “most insults” could not also be part of a subset of ad hominem fallacies. But poisoning the well is a tricky special case, and if there’s one thing I’m known for, it’s belaboring a point.
So what of poisoning the well? It’s a way of loading the audience, of turning a potential audience against your opponent before they even get a chance to present their argument. You present some information about your opponent–true or false–that you know your audience will perceive as negative, before your opponent gets a chance to state their case. The implication (and it’s almost always implied, as Loxton rightly notes) is that anything your opponent says thereafter is unreliable or incorrect.
Here’s where it gets tricky: it barely qualifies as a fallacy, because all the speaker is doing is offering an irrelevant fact about his opponent’s character. As we said, in order for something to be a logical fallacy, it has to contain an error in reasoning. The point of poisoning the well is not to actually commit a fallacy, but to make the audience commit a fallacy, specifically to commit an ad hominem fallacy, by dismissing your opponent’s claims and arguments based on the irrelevant information you provided at the beginning. So poisoning the well is a subset of ad hominem fallacies, where the fallacy is committed by an audience at the prompting of the well-poisoning speaker.
Here’s where Loxton gets it wrong–and only fairly slightly, I might add. I had to do a fairly large amount of research before I felt confident that this was a key point–is that the key feature of poisoning the well is that it’s done pre-emptively. Insults offered after your opponent has stated their case may be an attempt to manipulate the audience into the same ad hominem fallacy, but they do not qualify as poisoning the well.
An example: You open up a copy of “Natural Cures THEY Don’t Want You To Know About” by Kevin Trudeau, and someone has placed inside the front cover a description of Trudeau’s various fraud convictions. Consequently, everything you read in the book will be tainted by your knowledge that Trudeau is a convicted fraud. The well has been thus poisoned, and now you’re prompted to dismiss anything he says on the basis of his personal characteristics.
If someone places that same note halfway through the book, or at the end, and you don’t encounter it until you finish or partly finish, then you may still be inclined to commit an ad hominem fallacy based on the contents of that note. However, this is not poisoning the well, which requires preemption.
There’s an issue here, and it touches on all the talk I’ve been doing recently about using arguments based on ethos in various situations. See, the fact that Kevin Trudeau is a convicted fraud is relevant if the point is whether or not you should trust what he has to say, or bother spending time and effort listening to it. The truth or falsehood of his arguments absolutely stand on their own, but his past as a huckster is of great relevance to the consideration of whether or not to take his word on anything.
It is a sad fact of life that no one person can conduct all the relevant research necessary to establish or refute any given claim or argument. Consequently, we must often rely on trust to some degree in considering how to direct our efforts, which claims merit deep investigation, and which we can provisionally accept based on someone’s word. This splits the hairs between the matter of whether or not a claim is true and whether or not a claim warrants belief. While it’s a laudable ideal to make those two categories as close to one another as possible, that goal remains impractical.
What this means is that, when considering whether or not to believe a claim or accept an argument (again, not whether or not the claim or argument is true), we generally use a person’s credibility as a piece of evidence used to evaluate whether or not belief is warranted. It’s rarely the only piece of evidence, and it only really qualifies as sufficient evidence in particularly ordinary claims, but it’s a relevant piece of evidence to consider nonetheless.
But, and I want to make this abundantly clear, it has nothing to do with the truth of a claim or the validity of an argument, it has only to do with the credibility of the speaker making the claim and whether or not the claim warrants belief. We should be very clear and very careful about this point: Kevin Trudeau’s record as a fraudster has no bearing on whether or not his claims are true. It does, however, have a bearing on whether or not you or I or anyone else should trust him or believe what he has to say.
In other words, if most people told me it was sunny out, I’d take their word for it. If Kevin Trudeau told me it was sunny out, I’d look up. And I’d wonder if he had some way of profiting off people’s mistaken belief about the relative sunniness of a given day.
So, back to the issue of insults. There’s one more problem with saying that “most insults” are a subcategory of any fallacy, and that’s that, at least with fallacies of relevance, the fallacious nature of an argument is in the argument’s flawed structure, in its failure of logic, and not in the words which are used. An ad hominem fallacy is not fallacious because it contains an insult, but because the conclusion does not follow from the premises. Containing the insult is what makes it “ad hominem,” but it’s the flawed logic that makes it a fallacy.
For instance, take this argument:
If a person copulates with his or her mother, then that person is a motherfucker.
Oedipus copulated with his mother.
Therefore, Oedipus is a motherfucker.
The fact that this argument is vulgar and contains an insult has no bearing whatsoever on its validity. And it’s clearly valid; and within the context of “Oedipus Rex,” it’s also sound. An insult alone does not make an argument into an ad hominem fallacy.
Take this argument, then:
All men are mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Socrates smells like day-old goat shit, on account of his not bathing.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.
A valid argument is one in which the conclusion is logically implied by and supported by the premises. The conclusion here is, in fact, logically implied by the premises, and is justified by them. The insulting third premise does not support the conclusion, but the conclusion also does not rely on it. Its inclusion is unnecessary, but including it does nothing to invalidate the argument.
Finally, take this argument:
All men are mortal.
Plato is a really smart guy, and he says that Socrates is mortal.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.
This is a fallacious argument–a pro hominem argument, sort of the opposite of ad hominem–because the conclusion is not sufficiently supported by the premises. The conclusion relies upon an irrelevant premise, which renders the logic invalid–obviously, despite not being insulting at all.
I hope I laid that all out in a way that is clear, because I really don’t think I could make it any clearer. It bothers me to see terms which have distinct, specific, clear meanings being applied inaccurately by people who ought to know better. It further bothers me to see skeptics, who of all people should relish being corrected and doing the research to correct prior misconceptions, digging in their heels, committing style over substance fallacies, and generally misunderstanding basic principles of logic and argumentation.
But because I like to belabor a point, and because it’s been several paragraphs since I’ve been sufficiently snarky, let me offer one more example–pulled from real life, this time!–to clarify poisoning the well.
Here, the speaker offers a link to an opponent’s argument, but primes the audience first by obliquely calling his opponent a dick, and moreover, suggesting that the opponent is using tactics specifically identified by an authority in the relevant field as unacceptable and ill-advised. The speaker’s audience, on clicking through to the opposing article, is thus primed to read the article through the lens of the author’s suggested dickishness, and to dismiss it as dirty tactics from a dick, rather than actually considering the merits of the argument. This is classic poisoning the well, which, you’ll recall, is intended to cause the audience to commit an ad hominem fallacy.
We skeptics take pride in our allegiance to logic and evidence; we are aware of our own shortcomings; we are aware that we are fallible and that we make mistakes. In my opinion the above comments about Jenny McCarthy are a mistake that we should own up to and make amends, and stop using it. If you really want to counter Jenny’s anti-vaccine views, choose one of the claims she makes, do some research, and write a nice blog entry showing where she goes wrong and what the evidence says, but do not resort to ad-hominem attacks. We are skeptics and we ought to be better than that.
–Skepdude, “Skeptics Gone Wild,” 8/23/10.
An incomplete list of sources used for this post: