Bigotry, Satire, and the Left

[CW: Racism]

I used to be a big fan of “Family Guy.” I owned the first several seasons, and watched them repeatedly. I rejoiced when the show came back from its cancellation, even if the interim productions (A “live from Vegas” album and the direct-to-DVD Stewie movie) weren’t spectacular. I listened to the commentaries, which were often just as entertaining as the show itself. I loved how the show skewered right-wing religious fundamentalism, how frequently it crossed into the boundaries of bad taste for a laugh. Like, there was the bit where a JFK Pez dispenser got shot, or where Osama Bin Laden was trying to get past airport security by singing showtunes, and the whole “When You Wish Upon a Weinstein” episode. The latter of those never made it to air; the former segments were even cut from the DVD sets. Family Guy was edgy.

Seth MacFarlane, the creator and significant part of the voice cast of the show, is decidedly liberal, and his politics have certainly informed the series. More and more as the show went on, we saw bits lampooning creationists and religion, promoting pot legalization and gay marriage and positive immigration reform.

Unfortunately, as the show went on, we saw more and more of the stuff that eventually soured me on the series. That same “edginess,” that same intentionally-offensive philosophy of “we make fun of everyone,” meant more characters who were stereotype caricatures. Brian’s flamboyantly gay relative, the Asian reporter (voiced by a white woman) who occasionally slips into a “me ruv you rong time” accent for a laugh, the creepy old pedophile. And of course Quagmire, whose ’50s-throwback ladies-man character is eventually just a vehicle for relentless rape jokes.

Seth MacFarlane would probably tell you that he’s not a racist or a misogynist or a homophobe. He would probably tell you that he’s very liberal, that the show constantly makes fun of right-wing ideologies and satirizes even his erstwhile employers at Fox. In satirical parlance, he’d probably argue that his show is “punching up.”

The problem is that, while doing all that punching, he’s not giving any thought to the splash damage toward people who might not be his actual targets. What about satirizing right-wingers necessitates rape jokes and racial stereotypes? Would his satire be as effective without those elements? Might it be better? I don’t think Seth MacFarlane cares much. They get laughs, and when it comes down to it, laughs matter more to guys like Seth MacFarlane than the targets of those laughs.

There are lots of people in similar boats, willing to throw anyone under the bus for a cheap laugh, then defend themselves by saying that they’re being satirical, that because they’re politically liberal, or because they satirize the powerful in addition to the powerless, that they can’t be bigots. They’re just equal-opportunity offenders, treating everyone the same, and you don’t see their powerful targets complaining.

Which, of course, misses the point. It misses the point like a white person saying “well how come it’s okay to say ‘honky’ or ‘cracker’ but not the n-word?” It misses the point like a man saying “female comedians are always telling jokes about men, how come it’s only sexist when I tell jokes about chicks or rape?” It misses the point that when not all people are equal in society, mocking them equally does unequal harm. Author Saladin Ahmed put it best when he said “In an unequal world, satire that mocks everyone serves the powerful. It is worth asking what pre-existing injuries we add our insults to.

It’s an important thing to remember when you’re a satirist. Who is your target? Who do you want to hurt, and who might get hurt in the crossfire? Is it necessary to your point for your target to have sex with an offensive transphobic caricature? Is it necessary to your point to dredge up stereotypical slurs against one minority to lampoon bigotry against another? Is it necessary in making fun of racists and homophobes to replicate racist and homophobic imagery?

“Satire” is not a shield that protects its creators from crticism. “Liberalism” is not an inoculation that prevents its bearers from committing bigoted acts. Punching down is a problem. Splash damage is a problem. Not all slights are covered by “but look at the larger context,” not when your “larger context” conveniently omits the context of centuries of caricatures with hook noses or big lips or fishnet stockings.

And, it should go without saying, “criticism” doesn’t come from the barrel of a gun.

Bigots Ruined It For You

[Trigger Warning for rape, misogyny, racism, assorted bigotry]

Let’s say you’re an enthusiastic Jain or Hindu, wanting to express your desire to be good, wanting to evoke Shakti with a clear symbolic representation as a flag or tattoo or something. You find the perfect symbol, one that has been used for that purpose since ancient times, the swastika. But you can’t use it. Bigots ruined it for you. A whole army of racists and supremacists claimed that symbol as their own and flew it over a campaign of genocide. It’s tainted, possibly forever. Try to adopt that symbol, and you’ll be mistaken for one of them, for a racist, a white supremacist, a Nazi, a bigot.

Let’s say it’s Halloween. You’re hosting a party for your friends, and you want to put together a costume that’s kind of ironic, something that you put thought into but looks like you just kind of threw it together. You settle on a classic ghost costume–white sheet, head to toe, with eye-holes cut out, like all the kids in “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.” You could flair it up a bit with a point toward the top, like the little tail bit on heads of those ghosts from Casper. But you can’t wear that costume. Bigots ruined it for you. Dress like that, and you’ll be mistaken for one of them, for a racist, a white supremacist, a Klansman, a bigot.

Let’s say you’re an enthusiastic southerner in the United States. You want to represent your heritage with a symbol of the South, something that proclaims in bold, primary colors your love of the land of barbecue and hospitality and Molly Hatchet. There’s a flag you can fly to do just that, except…except it was designed in a bloody war over (among other things) the right to treat some humans as less than human. It’s a well-designed flag, but bigots ruined it for you. It’s been tainted, by the war that spawned it and the continuing centuries of racist policies that followed. Fly that flag over your house, in your garage, on your trailer hitch, and you’ll be mistaken for one of them, for a racist, a segregationist, a bigot.

Let’s say you heard a funny joke recently. It’s kind of offensive, because it plays on stereotypes that you know aren’t true, but it’s a well-constructed joke nonetheless. You know you could tell it with perfect timing and get a roomful of hearty belly-laughs. Besides, you don’t believe those stereotypes are true. They’re absurd! But you can’t tell that joke anyway. Bigots ruined it for you. You may recognize that those stereotypes are false exaggerations, and you may know that everyone who hears you tell the joke knows that, but there are people who still believe those things, and there are people who are still hurt by those stereotypes, still affected by their presence in our culture. Tell that joke, and you’ll be mistaken for one of those people, for a racist, a misogynist, a homophobe, a bigot.

Let’s say that you’re a Christian. You follow Christ’s teachings and recognize that the most important thing–like it says in First Corinthians, like Jesus said to the scribes–is love. You want to express your Christian love by standing up for family values, because families–of any shape or size or configuration–are the purest example in this world of God’s unconditional love, and you value that. You see love as the most fundamental part of the Christian message, the foundation of Christ’s teachings, and so you would call yourself a fundamentalist Christian to express its importance to you. You define sin as that which is opposed to love, acts of jealousy and hatred, and see such acts as the worst crimes that one can carry out against their fellow humans. Despite that, you recognize that no person is truly evil, that those sins of hatred and jealousy come mostly out of ignorance, and that they can be corrected and defeated with love. You would advise people not to get angry at the hateful, but to hate the sin and love the sinner. But you can’t use those phrases–“family values,” “fundamentalist Christian,” “love the sinner, hate the sin.” Bigots ruined it for you. Use those phrases, and you’ll be mistaken for one of those people, for a homophobe, a fanatic, a bigot.

Let’s say you want to talk to a stranger in an enclosed space, like an elevator or a bus or subway car. After all, people end up in those things together, and it’s really awkward to just sit around staring at the wall silently or pretending other people don’t exist. Besides, a stranger’s just a friend you haven’t met yet, and you’re a friendly person. So you’d like to seize the opportunity to make small talk. But you can’t. Bigots ruined it for you. Rapists and sadists committing what are, effectively, hate crimes against women, along with violent misogynists and a culture that ignores them and dismisses the concerns of women, that blames victims and makes rape and harassment costly to report, have ruined it for you. Try to strike up that conversation, and you’ll be mistaken for one of those people, for a rapist, a violent person, a misogynist, a bigot.

Bigots suck. They make life shitty for lots of people. They make life shitty for the people who are targeted by their bigotry. They make life shitty for people who have to endure the inequalities built into a culture that rose up on bigoted foundations, even as more enlightened people recognize the mistakes of the past and try to dismantle that bigotry. And they even make life shitty for people who, in their innocent cluelessness or lack of empathy, might be mistaken for bigots. The solution is not to lash out at the targets of that bigotry, at the people who’ve suffered the most because of it, for being unable to look into your heart and your past and see that you’re not a bigot at all. The solution is not to lash out at people for being unable to discern whether an action is motivated by bigotry or ignorance. The solution is to realize that bigotry makes things suck for everyone. If you’re going to lash out, make sure you’re lashing out at the bigots. They’re the ones who ruined things.

What kind of diversity?

Vjack has a post up on Atheist Revolution discussing his problems with Atheism+. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about it; I think he’s wrong, I think his posts on this and related subjects have been full of telling elisions and bad arguments. I’m personally disappointed that someone I respected and agreed with in the past has devoted so much of his recent blogging to this apparent vendetta. I generally don’t understand the pushback and opposition to the various proposed and enacted social justice initiatives, but it’s more striking when it’s from people I like (see also my quarrel with Toxicpath). But that’s enough of the personal stuff. The point here is simply responding to a couple of statements from that long-ish post.

On Values

In suggesting that we share common goals, I am being descriptive rather than prescriptive. That is, I am suggesting that virtually all atheist do in fact have some common goals and not that we should adopt some set of goals that we do not currently share.

I get where Vjack is coming from here, but he’s arguing against two contradictory strawmen. The implication in this statement (made explicit in the subsequent paragraph) is that Atheism+ is a movement saying that atheists should adopt social justice values, which they currently have not adopted.

This is flatly wrong, and that’s pretty clear from the few prominent posts on the subject. The fact is that a lot of atheists already do share these social justice values, just as most atheists share the values that Vjack presumed for the first sentence, which I suspect would be similar to the incomplete list I compiled yesterday. The percentage of atheists who share social justice values is clearly not as large as the percentage who value science, for instance, but it’s still a preexisting category. “Atheism+” is the label that arose and took off from a discussion of like-minded atheists who already valued social justice to describe themselves.

Imagine that the libertarian wing of atheism–something that’s already in existence and has been clearly visible for some time–wanted to set themselves apart, so they could discuss libertarian issues without having to deal with the constant harping of liberal atheists, and so they could work to enact policies that supported their libertarian ideals, which is not something that the entirety of the atheist movement would be for. Would we begrudge them the ability to label themselves with something catchier than “libertarian atheists” (hey libertarian atheists: “Athei$m.” You can have that one for free) and unite to work toward particular goals that align with both their libertarian and atheist viewpoints?

I imagine some would. I wouldn’t. The less I have to deal with libertarians, the happier I generally am. It’d be a win-win situation.

So Vjack is wrong in suggesting that “Atheism+” is somehow, by its nature, prescriptive. It’s describing a movement and a group that’s been forming for a good long time, even if that movement isn’t “all atheists.” But I think he’s also wrong with seeing prescriptiveness as a problem. There’s nothing wrong or problematic in arguing that a particular group should care about a particular issue, or take action in a particular instance. It’s something that the atheist movement is generally familiar with. We hardly need any prodding to be spurred to action to support a high school atheist in a free speech battle or to speak out against tyrannical theocratic regimes, because those things are obviously in-line with our shared values. But, you know, take a look at the “Bullshit” episodes on secondhand smoke or the Americans with Disabilities Act or Cheerleading. Granted, they’re not directed primarily and solely at atheists, but they’re clear examples of some skeptically-minded folks saying to others “hey, these are issues that are important, which you should care about (and adopt our position on).” They’re making an argument that people who are like-minded on one set of positions and values (existence of gods, importance of science, promotion of reality-based policy) should also be like-minded on other positions and values (corporate liberty, opposing government intrusion, libertarianism).

They’re making an argument, which others are free to accept or reject. There’s no magical barrier between one set of values that some atheists share and any other set of values that some atheists share. If I hold libertarian or liberal or feminist or vegetarian or Objectivist values for the same basic reasons that I hold skeptical and scientific values, then of course I’m going to argue that others who hold one set of values should hold the other. “Hey, we both care about [THING A], and I care about [THING B] for the same reason I care about [THING A]. Since you agree with me about [THING A], you should also agree with me about [THING B].” Making the argument is not a problem, because there’s always the opportunity for a counterargument. And if a movement can handle guys like Bill Maher promoting anti-medical quackery and Penn Jilette promoting anti-government ideology and the legions of AGW deniers promoting anti-climate science demagoguery, all under the heading of “I’m anti-medicine/anti-government/anti-AGW for the same reason I’m anti-religion, because I’m a skeptic,” then I don’t see how it can’t handle feminists and social justice folks doing the same, even if you believe that those people are wrong/irrational/unskeptical/whatever.

On Diversity

I have always thought our movement was strong because of our diversity and not in spite of it. I value big tent atheism, and what I mean by that is a large movement with great diversity in which people work together to accomplish the few goals we truly share.

Had I been drinking, I probably would have ruined my smartphone when I read that first sentence. I agree, movement atheism has a lot of diversity, even of the kind that Vjack cites. But the idea that the community somehow only or generally or mostly works together to accomplish the few goals we truly share, that “Atheism+” is somehow an outlier in working together on goals that are only shared by a subset of atheists, is ludicrous. Some atheists have the goal of building bridges with theists to work on shared goals, others see that as a waste of time or worse. Some atheists have the goal of making all discourse civil and professional and non-dickish, others value blunt and acerbic speech. These groups have existed, and have been trying to unite like-minded atheists toward one or another goal, and creating DEEEEEP RIIIIIFTS in the movement/community for years. We generally work together on goals like fighting school prayer and supporting science, but there’s always been factions of atheists pulling in different directions and sniping at their opponents.

But there’s a bigger thing going on here, and it’s one that was laid out pretty clearly by Greta Christina. The question is what kind of diversity do you want? Do you want diversity of opinion, or diversity of background?

To some degree, you can have both. You can have libertarians and liberals and authoritarians, just as you can have blacks and whites and browns and so forth. But there comes a point where you have to make various choices, because encouraging, supporting, defending, or being explicitly inclusive of some opinions will necessarily make people from certain backgrounds feel excluded or dismissed, and vice-versa. As Greta Christina said, you can’t include both women and people who think women are inherently irrational. You can’t include both trans* people and people who think that trans* people are just self-deluded or insane. One way or another, someone’s going to leave.

Again, we’ve seen this recently with organized skepticism. Various leaders in the organized skeptical community have wanted to preserve a diversity of opinions on the god hypothesis by welcoming (and coddling) believers, which has left atheists feeling snubbed and delegitimized. In trying to accommodate one group, they’ve alienated another. TAM made their choice, that they’d rather have the Hal Bidlacks and Pamela Gays than the Christopher Hitchenses. We’ve seen it go the other way as well, such as when Orac declared his end with organized atheism after Richard Dawkins supported Bill Maher’s receipt of that science award. Dawkins said he found embracing a diverse group of atheists more important than promoting medicine, and so he lost the support of at least one medical practitioner.

Of course, it’s not quite that clear-cut, is it? It’s not like Hal Bidlack said at TAM “atheists aren’t welcome,” and it’s not like Vjack has said “feminists aren’t welcome.” What they’ve both said is that those groups are welcome under certain conditions. Atheists were welcome at TAM so long as they didn’t attack believers for their beliefs. Atheists are welcome to have their conferences about the god hypothesis, so long as they don’t do it under the heading of “skepticism.” Similarly, Vjack doesn’t have a problem with feminists, so long as they adhere to his standards of who should be considered a bigot. The rest of the social justice opponents seem to agree: so long as women are like Paula Kirby or Abbie Smith or Mallorie Nasrallah and don’t think harassment is that big a deal, or don’t ask people to change their practices, they can stick around. Heck, they’ll be celebrated. But man, suggest that it’s wrong to make rape jokes to a minor or hand an unsolicited nude photo to a speaker or that guys be more aware of appropriate times to ask women out, and then they’re unreasonable, irrational, unskeptical, shrill, militant, radical, feminazi, femistasi, c***s and t***s.

Diversity is okay–it’s great! it’s desirable! it makes us strong!–so long as it’s on our terms.

And you know what? That’s okay. If they want to prize diverse opinions over diverse backgrounds, that’s fine. But then they really can’t be surprised when the people who feel excluded by the side they’ve chosen (explicitly or through inaction) go off and do their own thing.

Personally, I prize diverse backgrounds. Somite argued that gender (and by extension, other background factors) didn’t determine ideas or facts. Would that that were the case. Societies around the world do not treat people of different backgrounds (gender, social class, skin color, neurology, disability status, etc.) the same way, and so those people develop different perspectives on the world. Those perspectives do not change what is objectively true or real, but they do affect which aspects of reality people are concerned about and focused on. Would an all-male group of skeptics and atheists ever consider the pseudoscience behind douching or various cosmetics? How highly would they prioritize those things? Would a group of non-parent skeptics and atheists consider the claims about the effects of breastfeeding or water birth or teaching about Santa Claus? How much effort would they expend on those topics as opposed to acupuncture and angels? White American ex-Christian atheists have certainly addressed the Muslim claim about the 72 heavenly virgins, but do they have the same depth of analysis on the subject as Heina Dadabhoy did? Would they provide the same emphases?

People from different backgrounds provide perspectives and priorities that a more homogenous group wouldn’t consider. And I think that’s important, I think that’s valuable. I think seeing problems or claims from different perspectives is an important tool in evaluating them, and an important tool in arguing about them. Just given the god hypothesis, some people might be more swayed by a moral argument (like the Euthyphro dilemma, or “Why Won’t God Heal Amputees”) than an evidentiary one, and vice versa. Having both those arguments in your toolset is more useful than only having one. But I also think that the perspectives of people who come from different backgrounds can also help shape and change what we find important. If all atheism were run by folks from mostly-godless European countries, then we’d probably see a lot more Alain de Bottons and a lot fewer Matt Dillahunties–and if the majority of atheists shared Alexander Aan’s perspective, then the movement would be different in a lot of other ways. Our backgrounds and experiences shape who we are, what we care about, and what we spend our time and effort on. Failing to consider the perspectives of others means we make those choices with less information, and may expend our efforts in less-than-worthwhile directions.

Moreover, there’s the P.R. angle. Like it or not, people are primed to listen to and agree with people who share their backgrounds, who come from the same place they do, who speak their language. Alain de Botton’s atheist-church arguments might play well in Europe where churches are mostly toothless, but it was roundly dismissed and ridiculed in god-soaked America. And I suspect that Reg Finley is going to play better at a black church in Tuskegee than a white doctor, as an example. The more people of different backgrounds, different places, different perspectives, we have, the more “languages” we can speak, the more people we can speak to and reach. If the whole movement looks like an old white boys’ club, it’s going to speak less strongly to people who don’t fit into those categories. You can call it irrational, I call it ethos.

So I’d prize diversity of background, which provides different perspectives and opinions and prioirties, over diversity of opinion, for the most part. Given the choice between an ex-Muslim atheist and a white supremacist atheist, I’m going to go for the former every time. I think we gain more than we lose by excluding the bigots. Is that divisive? Hell yes. But “divisiveness” is not in and of itself, a bad thing. Movement atheism has divided itself from secular Intelligent Design proponents like the Raelians and largely-secular cults like Scientology, and I think it’s benefited as a result.

And if what it takes for the social-justice-concerned atheists to move forward and work on those topics without being weighed down by the rape-jokers and c***-kickers and “only on my terms” diversity enthusiasts is to relabel themselves and widen an already-extant rift, then so be it. We’ll be divisive, and you can do whatever. The rest of us will work together on the goals we truly share, and you can comfortably sit back and call us irrational nazis and baboons.

How Dare You?!

This is kind of a follow-up to my post on friendship, and is likely to hit some of the same notes and indict some of the same people.

I’ve noticed recently, though I’m sure the trend has been around for some time, this tendency in skeptic/atheist circles to suggest, explicitly or implicitly, that a person has done so much for the atheist/skeptic community that it is somehow out of line to criticize them. Here’s an example I saw today, in PZ’s post about Sam Harris:

The Harris bashing going on here is just ridiculous. The man is a hero of the skepticism movement. All you people rushing to judgement should be embarrassed.

Hes admitted countless times he phrased his ideas poorly on the profiling issue (even publicly apologized on TV).

PZ, you need to take note on how well Harris defends himself against this character assassination you’ve exacerbated once again. Compare that with how you usually respond to criticism.

Remember that next time you’re getting all upset over a comedian’s joke and crying all over your keyboard and empty donut cases.

I know that I’ve seen this same kind of sentiment expressed about DJ Grothe of late (there’s one buried in this comment), and I’m pretty sure it came up a bunch about Dawkins in the whole “Dear Muslima” flap.

To put it bluntly, this kind of thinking is wrong-headed, fallacious, dangerous, and dare I say it, religious.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t have role models. That would be absurd. There are always people who are better than us or more informed than us at certain things. It’s fine to look up to people; the problem comes when you begin thinking those people are somehow above you.

A further problem comes if they begin thinking the same.

Must we, scientific skeptics and rational atheists, keep learning this lesson? This is the lesson of Linus Pauling, the lesson of Ayn Rand, the lesson of Edgar Mitchell, the lesson of Bill Maher, and so on. Being brilliant, well-informed, or just right about one area or subject does not make one brilliant, well-informed, or right about everything. Expertise does not transfer.

We as skeptics and atheists spend a lot of our time arguing with people because they’re wrong about something. We argue with strangers, we argue with anonymous idiots, we argue with professional pseudoscientists and preachers who hate us, we even argue with acquaintances and coworkers.

Why would we avoid arguing with the people we care about?

Granted, James Randi and Richard Dawkins and the like are basically strangers to me. The same is true for most people and the famous role models they look up to. We feel a kinship with these people because they’ve said or written or done things that resonate with us, that we wish to live up to or emulate. That forges an emotional connection, even if it’s one-way, which boils down to (at the very least) the point that we care what they have to say. We value their thoughts and opinions enough to spend our money buying books filled with just that, or spend our time watching their videos or reading their words online.

And so when they, our heroes, say or do something that is clearly wrong, I think we have a responsibility to speak up about it. In part, it’s because there’s a cognitive dissonance in saying “I value what you have to say” and “what you have to say with regard to X is wrong/reprehensible.” In part, it’s because we recognize that there are other people who value what they have to say, but may not be informed enough to see that, on this topic, they’re dead wrong. In part, it’s because we hope that our heroes are reasonable and, when presented with evidence that contradicts their position, would change it, making them even more admirable for following the evidence. In part, it’s because we just don’t like people being wrong. In part, I think we realize that leaving the wrongness unchallenged could eventually lead to worse problems (like the ubiquity of vitamin megadosing or libertarians). And in part, I think, it’s our responsibility.

That responsibility has different degrees of strength. If it’s, say, an author you like who has said something stupid, then your purchase of his book, your recommending it to your friends, etc., means that you have contributed to his popularity. But if it’s, say, someone who is often chosen by the media to speak for a group that you’re part of, then they’re sometimes (de facto) speaking on your behalf. And you don’t want the general public to think that this thing they’re wrong about is generally representative of the group’s beliefs.

Because, one way or another, their wrongness makes you look wrong. You’re wrong by proxy.

And so we call out our heroes when they’re wrong because we care about them and their opinions, because we want to give them the opportunity to realize their mistake and correct it, and because we want to show clearly that we don’t share their wrongness. Phil Plait called out Carl Sagan in his first book, because Sagan was wrong about Velikovski. Phil was also involved in correcting Randi when Randi spouted off about climate change. PZ called out Sam Harris about his unfounded views regarding racial profiling, and promoted the opinions of actual experts in response. Many spoke up when anti-medicine Bill Maher was nominated for a science award. And so on and so forth. Maybe if more people had spoken more loudly and forcefully at Linus Pauling, it wouldn’t be a generally-accepted belief that Vitamin C cures colds.

What we don’t do, what we shouldn’t do, what we must not do, is say “well, these people have done so much good that we can overlook this little bit of bad.” We don’t accept that from religious believers about the role of religion in history. We don’t accept that from the Catholic Church regarding its predator priests. We don’t accept that from science, dammit. We don’t say “well, these guys have published a bunch of good papers before, let’s just let this paper slide without peer review.” We don’t say “gee, Dr. Pauling’s been right about so many things, what’s the harm in just assuming he’s right about vitamin megadosing?” We don’t say “NASA’s got a pretty good track record, so we’re just going to overlook this error in the rover program. We wouldn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.”

No, dammit, we’re skeptics, we’re scientists and science enthusiasts. We pride ourselves on seeking the truth and fighting ignorance. When prominent scientists and skeptics go wrong, they’re the ones we should argue with most strongly, most fervently–because either they, prizing truth and knowledge as we do, will change their position, or we–prizing truth and knowledge–will realize that it was our own that was in error.

Or they’ll go on believing and spouting wrong things. And then we’re free to question whether they really are committed to truth and knowledge, or if they are committed to their own sense of infallible rightness. That’s a bitter pill to swallow, to realize that even your heroes (maybe even especially your heroes) can be blinded by ego, but it’s a necessary lesson to learn. It’s necessary because no one is perfectly right or perfectly insightful or perfectly skeptical or perfectly reasonable. Pobody’s nerfect, as the hat says. And sometimes we become complacent in accepting a person’s thoughts or ideas as pure unvarnished truth, and need to be shaken out of it with a glimpse of their clay feet.

Being a luminary, being a role model, being a tireless advocate, being a hero, shouldn’t shield a person from criticism. It may mean that we give them a little more benefit of the doubt to explain or clarify, but even that isn’t inexhaustible.

What it does (and should) grant them is a group of people who care what they have to say enough to explain to them why they’re wrong.

More on Movement Problems (or, Definitions Matter)

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend lately, and while there may be a bit of “when you’re a hammer, every problem starts looking like a nail” going on, I can’t help but see it as a symptom of the apparently growing notion that “skepticism” is something you join rather than something you do. But I keep seeing this twofold trend of people venerating logic and reason while failing to actually understand them (or at least to understand them as well as they think they do) and using terms like “rational” or “fallacy” in value-laden ways that strip them of their actual meaning.

The first time I really took notice of this was when Don talked about his trip to a CFI meeting in Indianapolis. At the meeting, he encountered a number of CFI members who saw skepticism not as a set of cognitive tools, but as a set of dogmatic rules which should be taught to people. In addition, and perhaps most relevantly:

[A]lmost every member I interacted with afterward was like an automaton repeating poorly understood buzzwords: “critical thinking,” “skepticism,” “freethought,” etc. They said these words and seemed to believe that they understood them and that, through that understanding, were part of a greater whole.

The same trend was the subject of the recent kerfuffle with Skepdude. The ‘Dude clearly held logic in high esteem, and clearly understood that fallacies were bad things, but just as clearly didn’t understand what made fallacies fallacious, and was quick to throw out the term “ad hominem” where it did not apply.

More alarming, however, were the comments of the much more prominent skeptic Daniel Loxton, who claimed that most insults were fallacious poisoning the well, despite that clearly not being the case as per the fairly strict and clear definition of poisoning the well.

You can see the same thing in spectacular action in the comment thread here, where commenter Ara throws around terms like “rational” and “anti-rational” as part of an argument that echoes Skepdude’s attempts to say that a valid argument doesn’t make insults valid, when in fact the opposite is the case.

Despite what Mr. Spock would have you believe, saying that something is “rational” or “logical” is to say almost nothing about the thing you are trying to describe. Any position, any conclusion–true or false, virtuous or reprehensible, sensible or absurd–can be supported by a logically valid argument. For instance:

All pigs are green.
All ostriches are pigs.
Therefore, all ostriches are green.

That’s a logically valid argument. The conclusion follows inexorably from the premises. That the conclusion is false and absurd is only because the premises are equally false and absurd. The argument is unsound, but it is perfectly logical. “Logical” is not a value judgment, it is an objective description, and can only be accurately applied to arguments1.

“Rational” is similar. There’s a lot of equivocation possible with “rational,” because it can mean “sensible” as well as “based on reason” or “sane” or “having good sense.” Some of those meanings are value-laden. However, if we are describing a conclusion, an argument, or a course of action, and if we are hoping to have any kind of meaningful discussion, then it’s important to be clear on what we’re trying to say when using the word “rational.”

If, for instance, I’m using the term “rational” to call an idea or action or something “sane” or “possessing good sense,” I’m probably expressing an opinion. “Good sense” is a subjective quality, and the things I consider “sane” may not be the same particular things that are excluded from the DSM-IV.

If, however, I’m trying to say that a belief or course of action or idea is “sensible” or “based on reason,” then I must first know what the reasons or senses involved are. A “sensible” course of action depends on subjective judgment, which is largely driven by circumstance and context. If someone cuts me off at 80mph on the freeway, I may consider such an action to be insensible, but not knowing what caused the person to take that action–say, for instance, their passenger was threatening them, or going into labor, or something–I really have no way of judging the sensibility of the action.

Similarly, if I don’t know what reasons are driving a person to hold some belief or take some action, then I cannot know if that action is based on reason–i.e., if it’s “rational,” in this sense. For instance, if I believe that autism is caused by mercury toxicity and that there are toxic levels of mercury in childhood vaccinations, then it may be a reasonable course of action to refuse to immunize my child. That an action may be wrong, or may be based on false reasons or bad reasons, does not make it irrational or unreasonable.

The fact is that most people do not knowingly take actions or hold beliefs for no reason. Many people take actions or hold beliefs for bad reasons, or ill-considered reasons, but most people do think “logically” and “rationally.” The problem comes from incorrect premises, or from a failure to consider all relevant reasons or weigh those reasons appropriately.

What I’m seeing more of lately, though, is the word “rational” used to mean “something that follows from my reasons” or “something I agree with,” or more simply, “good.” None of these are useful connotations, and none of them accurately represent what the word actually means. Similarly, “fallacy” is coming to mean, in some circles or usages, “something I disagree with” or “bad,” which again fails to recognize the word’s actual meaning. This is fairly detrimental; we already have a word for “bad.” We don’t have other good words for “fallacy,” and they are not directly synonymous with each other.

It seems like an awful lot of skeptics understand that logic and reason are good and important, but they don’t actually seem to understand what makes them work. They seem happy to understand the basics, to practice a slightly more in-depth sort of cargo cult argumentation, while missing the significant whys and wherefores. Sure, you might be able to avoid fallacious arguments by simply avoiding anything that looks like a fallacy, but if you actually understand what sorts of problems cause an argument to be fallacious, it makes your arguing much more effective.

Let me provide two examples. First, my car: I can get by just fine driving my car, even though I really know very little about what’s going on underneath the hood and throughout the machinery. It’s not that I’m not interested; I find the whole process fascinating, but I haven’t put the work in to actually understand what’s going on on a detailed level. Someone who knew my car more intimately would probably get better gas mileage, would recognize problems earlier than I do and have a better idea of what’s wrong than “it makes a grinding noise when I brake,” and would probably use D2 and D3, whatever those are. I don’t get the full experience and utility out of my car, and that’s okay for most everyday travel. But you’re not going to see me entering into a street race with it.

On the other hand, I love cooking, and I’ve found that understanding the science behind why and how various processes occur in the kitchen has made me a much more effective cook. Gone are the days when my grilling was mostly guesswork, and when my ribs would come out tough and stringy. Now that I understand how the textures of muscle and connective tissue differ, and how different kinds of cooking and heat can impact those textural factors, I’m a much better cook. Now that I understand how searing and browning work on a chemical level, I’m a much better cook. I can improvise more in the kitchen, now that I have a better understanding of how flavors work together, and how to control different aspects of taste. I’m no culinary expert, but I can whip up some good meals, and if something goes a way that I don’t like, I have a better idea of how to change or fix it than I did when I was just throwing things together by trial and error.

If you’re content with reading some skeptical books and countering the occasional claim of a co-worker, then yeah, you really don’t need to know the ins and outs of logic and fallacies and reasoning and so forth. But if you want to engage in the more varsity-level skeptical activities, like arguing with apologists or dissecting woo-woo claims in a public forum, then you’re going to need to bring a better game than a cursory understanding of logic and basic philosophy. You don’t need to be a philosophy major or anything, but you might need to do reading beyond learning this stuff by osmosis from hanging out on the skeptical forums. Mimicking the techniques and phrasing of people you’ve seen before only gets you so far; if you really want to improvise, then you have to know how to throw spices together in an effective way.

I’m generally against the faction who wants to frame skepticism as some new academic discipline. I think that’s silly, and I think (regardless of intent) that it smacks of elitism. I’m of the opinion that anyone can be a skeptic, and that most people are skeptics and do exercise skepticism about most things, most of the time. But that doesn’t mean that skepticism comes easily, or that the things we regularly talk about in skeptical forums are easily understood. You have to do some work, you have to put in some effort, and yeah, you have to learn the basics before you can expect to speak knowledgeably on the subject. But believe me, it takes a lot more to learn how to cook a decent steak than to learn how to cook up a good argument.


1. I suppose one could describe the thinking or processing methods of an individual or machine as “logical” in a moderately descriptive way, but it still doesn’t give much in the way of detail. What would a non-logical thought process be? One unrelated non-sequitur after another?

Please feel free to dismiss the following

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:

In which I piss on the ‘Dude’s rug

I’ve recently had a bit of a back-and-forth with the Skepdude that eventually spilled out onto Twitter. I started writing this post when it appeared that my last comment might languish in eternal moderation, but it has since shown up, so kudos to Skepdude for exceeding my pessimistic expectations. If this post hadn’t turned into a larger commentary before that bit posted, I might have deleted the whole thing. As it stands, I’ve used poor Skepdude as a springboard.

In any case, you can go ahead and read the relevant posts, then come back here and read my further commentary. It’s okay, I’ll wait.

Back? Great. Here’s the further commentary.

I think this conversation touches on a few key points relevant to skeptical activism. The first is this trepidation regarding basic rhetoric. We tend to throw around “rhetoric” in a disparaging fashion, often in the context of “baseless rhetoric” or “empty rhetoric.” And those can be to the point, but I think we run the risk of forgetting that rhetoric is the art of argumentation, the set of tools and strategies available to craft convincing arguments.

We’ve heard a lot from skeptics and scientists in the past few years claiming to be communications experts and saying that skeptics and scientists need to communicate better; we’ve all seen and complained about debates and discussions where the rational types fail because they can’t argue or work a crowd as well as their irrational opponents. These are both, to some degree, failures of rhetoric. Scientists are trained to argue in arenas and fora where facts and evidence are the most important thing, and the only convincing thing. That’s great if you’re defending a dissertation or critiquing a journal article, but as we’ve seen time and time again, it doesn’t translate to success in debates outside the university. Kent Hovind and Ray Comfort and Deepak Chopra may be blinkered idiots without a fact between the three of them, which would mean death in a scientific arena, but in the arena of public discourse, it becomes a strength. Because when you have no facts to work with, you have to make sure that the rest of your techniques have enough glitz and flash to distract the audience from your lack of substance. Scientists ignore the style, knowing they have substance, unaware or naïve about audiences’ universal love for shiny things.

We in the skeptic community, such as it is, have spent a lot of time recently debating whether it’s better to use honey or vinegar; one lesson we should all take away from that, however, is that facts and logic are bland on their own. You need to dress them up with spices and sauces if you expect anyone to want to swallow them. If one of your goals is to convince human beings–not, say, robots or Vulcans–then you can’t rely on pure logic alone.

Moving back to Skepdude, he seems to be in two places in this argument. On one hand, he seems to think that we can ignore ethos and pathos, and argue on logos alone. Depending on his purpose, this may be enough. I don’t know what his goals are, in particular, but if he is content with arguing in such a way as to make his points clear and valid to any philosopher, scientist, or skeptic who happens to be reading them, then arguing with pure logic might be all he needs. Heck, he could break everything down and put it into those crazy modal logic proofs, and save himself a lot of typing.

But if he’s hoping to make his arguments convincing to a broader swath of people–and the amount of rhetorical questions and righteous anger in some of his other posts suggests that he is, and that he already knows this–then he’s going to need to slather those bland syllogisms in tasty pathos and savory ethos.

But here’s where I have the problem, and nowhere was it more apparent than in our Twitter conversation, while he elevates and venerates logic, he doesn’t understand a pretty basic principle of it, which is how fallacies–in particular, the ad hominem fallacy–work.

The whole post revolves around skeptics saying that Jenny McCarthy claims to oppose toxins yet uses Botox. Skepdude calls this an ad hominem fallacy. And I can see where it could be. Where he makes his mistake–and where most people who mistakenly accuse ad hominem make the mistake–is in failing to understand that ad hominem fallacies are all about the specific context. It’s true; if my only response to Jenny McCarthy’s anti-toxin arguments were “Yeah, well you put botox in your face, so who cares what you think,” I’d be dismissing her arguments fallaciously, by attacking her character–specifically, by suggesting that her actions invalidate her arguments.

But that doesn’t mean that any time I were to bring up McCarthy’s botox use would be fallacious. Let’s say I said, for instance, “You claim to be anti-toxin, yet you use botox; that suggests you’re a hypocrite, or that you don’t understand what toxins are.” Now, if I left it at that, it would still be fallacious; saying just that in response to her anti-vaccine arguments would be fallaciously dismissing them on the basis of her character.

Now, let’s imagine I said: “In fact, all the evidence demonstrates that the ‘toxins’ you insinuate are in vaccines are, in fact, present in non-toxic doses. Furthermore, the evidence shows that there is no link between vaccines and any autism spectrum disorder.” This bit addresses the substance of her argument, and does so using facts and evidence. If I further added “Also, you claim to be anti-toxin, yet you use botox; either you’re a hypocrite, or you don’t understand what toxins are,” I would most definitely be attacking her character, but it would not be fallacious because I wouldn’t be using it to dismiss her arguments.

The ad hominem fallacy requires that last part: in order for it to be fallacious, in order for it to render your argument invalid, you must be using the personal attack to dismiss your opponent’s arguments. Otherwise, it’s just a personal attack.

Skepdude disagrees:

This is what he linked to, by the way.

I replied:

And these were my links: 1 2 3.

And then I walked away from Twitter for a few hours, because I’m getting better at knowing when to end things.

And then I started writing this post, because I’m still not very good at it. I’d respond to the ‘Dude on Twitter, but I feel bad dredging up topics after several hours, and I know what I’m going to say won’t fit well in Tweets.

Anyway, the ‘Dude responded some more:

Oh, I’m so glad to have your permission. I would have tossed and turned all night otherwise.


Yes, you can infer what someone’s saying from their speech. I can even see some situations where the implication is strong enough to qualify as a logical fallacy–of course, the implication has to be an argument before it can be a fallacious one, and that’s a lot to hang on an implied concept–but that is, after all, the whole point of the Unstated Major Premise. However, (as I said in tweets) there’s a razor-thin line between inferring what an argument left unstated and creating a straw man argument that’s easier to knock down (because it contains a fallacy).

Skepdude even found a quote–in one of my links, no less!–that he thought supported this view:

He’s right, the ad hominem fallacy there doesn’t end with “therefore he’s wrong;” most ad hominem fallacies don’t. His point, however, isn’t as right, as a look at the full quote will demonstrate:

Argumentum ad hominem literally means “argument directed at the man”; there are two varieties.

The first is the abusive form. If you refuse to accept a statement, and justify your refusal by criticizing the person who made the statement, then you are guilty of abusive argumentum ad hominem. For example:

“You claim that atheists can be moral–yet I happen to know that you abandoned your wife and children.”

This is a fallacy because the truth of an assertion doesn’t depend on the virtues of the person asserting it.

Did you catch it? Here’s the relevant bit again: “If you refuse to accept a statement, and justify your refusal by criticizing the person who made the statement, then you are guilty of abusive argumentum ad hominem.” The point isn’t that the anti-atheist arguer attacked the atheist speaker to justify rejecting his argument.

So, once again, context is key. If, for instance, the atheist had argued “all atheists are moral,” the “you abandoned your wife and children” comment would be a totally valid counterargument. The key in the example given was that the anti-atheist respondent used his attack on the atheist arguer to dismiss their argument, in lieu of actually engaging that argument. A point which my other links, which went into greater detail, all made clear.

I’ll say it again: in order for it to be an ad hominem, the personal attack has to be directly used to dismiss the argument. Dismissing the argument on other grounds and employing a personal attack as an aside or to some other end is, by definition, not an ad hominem. You don’t have to take my word for it, either:

In reality, ad hominem is unrelated to sarcasm or personal abuse. Argumentum ad hominem is the logical fallacy of attempting to undermine a speaker’s argument by attacking the speaker instead of addressing the argument. The mere presence of a personal attack does not indicate ad hominem: the attack must be used for the purpose of undermining the argument, or otherwise the logical fallacy isn’t there. It is not a logical fallacy to attack someone; the fallacy comes from assuming that a personal attack is also necessarily an attack on that person’s arguments. (Source

For instance, ad hominem is one of the most frequently misidentified fallacies, probably because it is one of the best known ones. Many people seem to think that any personal criticism, attack, or insult counts as an ad hominem fallacy. Moreover, in some contexts the phrase “ad hominem” may refer to an ethical lapse, rather than a logical mistake, as it may be a violation of debate etiquette to engage in personalities. So, in addition to ignorance, there is also the possibility of equivocation on the meaning of “ad hominem”.

For instance, the charge of “ad hominem” is often raised during American political campaigns, but is seldom logically warranted. We vote for, elect, and are governed by politicians, not platforms; in fact, political platforms are primarily symbolic and seldom enacted. So, personal criticisms are logically relevant to deciding who to vote for. Of course, such criticisms may be logically relevant but factually mistaken, or wrong in some other non-logical way.
[…]
An Abusive Ad Hominem occurs when an attack on the character or other irrelevant personal qualities of the opposition—such as appearance—is offered as evidence against her position. Such attacks are often effective distractions (“red herrings”), because the opponent feels it necessary to defend herself, thus being distracted from the topic of the debate. (Source)

Gratuitous verbal abuse or “name-calling” itself is not an argumentum ad hominem or a logical fallacy. The fallacy only occurs if personal attacks are employed instead of an argument to devalue an argument by attacking the speaker, not personal insults in the middle of an otherwise sound argument or insults that stand alone.(Source)

And so on, ad infinitum.

To return to the original point, let’s say a skeptic has said “Jenny McCarthy speaks of dangerous ‘toxins’ in vaccines, yet she gets Botox shots, which include botulinum, one of the most toxic substances around, right on her face.” Removed from its context, we cannot infer what the arguer intended. I can see three basic scenarios:

  1. The skeptic has used the phrase as evidence to dismiss Jenny McCarthy’s arguments about “dangerous ‘toxins’ in vaccines,” and has thus committed an ad hominem fallacy.
  2. The skeptic has used the phrase as an aside, in addition to a valid counter-argument against her anti-vaccine claims. This would not be an ad hominem fallacy.
  3. The skeptic has used the phrase as evidence for a separate but relevant argument, such as discussing Jenny McCarthy’s credibility as a scientific authority, in addition to dismissing her arguments with valid responses. This would not be an ad hominem fallacy.

There are other permutations, I’m sure, but I think these are the likeliest ones, and only one out of the three is fallacious. Moreover, trying to infer such a fallacy into those latter two arguments would not be valid cause to dismiss them, but it would probably demonstrate a lack of reading comprehension or a predisposition to dismiss such arguments.

Let’s say I’ve just finished demolishing McCarthy’s usual anti-vax arguments, and then I say “She must not be very anti-toxin if she gets Botox treatments on a regular basis.” Would it be reasonable to infer that I meant to use that statement as fallacious evidence against her point? I think not. If I’ve already addressed her point with evidence and logic, how could you infer that my aside, which is evidence- and logic-free, was also meant to be used as evidence in the argument I’ve already finished debunking?

On the other hand, let’s say I’ve done the same, and then I say “plus, it’s clear that Jenny doesn’t actually understand how toxins work. Toxicity is all about the dose. She thinks that children are in danger from the miniscule doses of vaccine preservatives they receive in a typical vaccine regimen, and yet she gets botox treatments, which require far larger dosages of a far more potent toxin. If toxins worked the way she apparently thinks they do, she’d be dead several times over.” Same point used in service of a separate argument. Would it be reasonable to infer here that I meant the point to be used as evidence against her anti-vaccine claims? Obviously not.

The only case in which it would be reasonable to make that inference would be some variation of me using that claim specifically to dismiss her argument. Maybe I say it in isolation–“Obviously she’s wrong about toxins; after all, she uses botox”–maybe I say it along with other things–“Former Playboy Playmate Jenny McCarthy says she’s anti-toxin, but uses botox. Sounds like a bigger mistake than picking her nose on national TV”–but those are fallacies only because I’m using the irrelevant personal attack to dismiss her argument.

So why have I put aside everything else I need to do on Sunday night to belabor this point? Well, I think that it’s a fine point, but one worth taking the time to understand. Skepdude’s argument is sloppy; he doesn’t seem to understand the fine distinctions between fallacious ad hominem and stand-alone personal attacks or valid ethical arguments, and so he’s advocating that skeptics stop using arguments that could potentially be mistaken for ad hominem fallacies. That way he–and the rest of us–could keep on being sloppy in our understanding and accusations of fallacies and not have to worry about facing any consequences for that sloppiness.

I can’t help but be reminded of my brother. When he was a kid, he did a crappy job mowing the lawn, and would get chewed out for it. He could have taken a little more time and effort to learn how to do it right–heck, I offered to teach him–but he didn’t. Rather, by doing it sloppily, he ensured that he’d only be asked to do it as a last resort; either Dad or I would take care of it, because we’d rather see it done right. He didn’t have to learn how to do a good job because doing a crappy job meant he could avoid doing the job altogether. By avoiding the job altogether, he avoided the criticism and consequences as well.

The problem, of course, is that the people who actually knew what they were doing had to pick up the slack.

This is the issue with Skepdude’s argument here, and I think it’s a point worth making. I disagree with those people who want to make skepticism into some academic discipline where everything is SRS BZNS, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t think we shouldn’t have some reasonable standards. Argumentation is a discipline and an art. It takes work, it takes research and effort, and it requires you to understand some very subtle points. It’s often hard to distinguish a fallacious argument from a valid one, especially in some of the common skeptical topics, since some of the woo-woo crowd have become quite adept at obfuscating their fallacies. It’s not enough to get a general idea and move on; logic and science require clarity and specificity from both terms and arguments. “Ad hominem fallacy” means a certain, very particular thing, and it’s not enough to get a general idea and figure that it’s close enough. If you know what the fallacies actually are and you structure your arguments and your rhetoric in ways that are sound and effective, then you don’t need to worry about people mistaking some bit of your writing for some logical fallacy. You get to say, “no, in fact, that’s not a fallacy, but I could see where you might make that mistake. Here’s why…” When you do the job right, when your arguments are valid and stand on their own, then you don’t need to fear criticism and accusation. Isn’t that what we tell every psychic, homeopath, and theist who claims to have the truth on their side? “If your beliefs are true, then you have nothing to fear from scientific inquiry/the Million Dollar Challenge/reasonable questions”? Why wouldn’t we require the same standard from our own points and arguments?

Skepdude, I apologize for making this lengthy, snarky reply. I generally agree with you, and I obviously wouldn’t follow you on Twitter if I didn’t generally like what you have to say. But on this point, which I think is important, I think you’re clearly wrong, and I think it’s important to correct. Feel free to respond here or in the comments at your post; I obviously can’t carry out this kind of discussion on Twitter.