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Skeptics gone wild

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on August 23, 2010

I’m no fan of Jenny McCarthy, especially given her anti-vaccination views. I think that most of her arguments are invalid; she insists on perpetuating long debunked myths about vaccines, and seems to refuse to look at the actual evidence regarding vaccines. For that she needs to be criticized as much as we, politely but strongly, can. Nevertheless, it troubles me to witness ad hominem attacks, and the use of logical fallacies against McCarthy. One such argument that seems to have gained a bit of popularity these days goes along these lines:

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.

Unfortunately, even the one who is recently threatening to become my favorite active skeptic around (James Randi of course is on a category of his own, I’m talking mere mortals here), the Bad Astronomer himself made a similar comment at his Bad Astronomy blog.

I see. So injecting kids with scientifically-proven medicine that can save their lives and the lives of countless others is bad because of a fantasy-driven belief that it causes autism, but injecting a lethal pathogen — in fact, the most lethal protein known — into your face to help ease the globally threatening scourge of crow’s feet is just fine and dandy.

I’ve also heard a similar comment being made in an episode of The Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast, fairly recently.

Now, as satisfying as taking shots to people we whole-heartedly disagree with may be, I fail to see what the above comment adds to the vaccine discourse. Jenny McCarthy is wrong because of what she’s choosing to consider evidence, and due to poor critical thinking about the issue at hand, not because of her personal, adult live-style choices. Think about it; it is a non-sequitur, it has nothing to do with the discussion at hand, and I’m not even sure what it is supposed to highlight about Jenny McCarthy herself.

If you are not convinced, let us do the usual experiment and replace the word “Botox/Toxin” with something else,  smoking for example. Now let us assume for a second that teachers can smoke in the classrooms and McCarthy was advocating against smoke in the schools. Also assume she was a smoker herself and had said the following about cigarettes:

I love smoking, I absolutely love it,” she said. “I get it minimally, so I’m not a chain smoker. But I really do think it’s a savior, when I’m stressed and tired.

Now ask yourself: would her own personal love & consumption of tobacco, invalidate her arguments against smoking in schools? Of course not, and for the same reason her own personal use of Botox is not an argument against her anti-vaccine views. It is not related in any way; it is a non-sequitur and using it amounts to nothing more than an ad-hominem, or a poisoning-of-the-well, logical 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.

9 Responses

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  1. Tom Foss said, on August 23, 2010 at 5:08 PM

    I disagree on two counts: First, the argument goes toward demonstrating that Jenny doesn’t have a clue what she’s talking about when she uses the word “toxins.” There needs to be more elaboration to the quoted bit to show that, but it’s a point of evidence toward that point. Second, and related, it makes her out to be at least somewhat hypocritical, which goes to credibility. If she were just against childhood vaccinations, you could argue that she thinks it’s a matter of adult consent, but I’ve never seen her make that distinction. As far as I can tell, McCarthy is against vaccines across the board, which makes the botox thing pretty clearly hypocritical (except where it’s just scientific ignorance).

    On its own, it’s a cheap jab meant to make more of an emotional point than anything else. In service of a bigger argument, it can be quite relevant. We shouldn’t stop using it altogether, but we should recognize where its utility lies, and how little it accomplishes in isolation.

    • Skepdude said, on August 24, 2010 at 8:56 AM

      Actually, I’m not sure we can level the charge of hypocrisy on Jenny, hence my tobacco-scenario. It is not hypocritical for an adult to say that children should not engage in X activity or consume Y product, while the adult does just that. If we were to say the opposite, then you’d have to accept that all adults that are for age limits when it comes to drinking, shouldn’t drink themselves; or all adults who support statutory-rape laws should not have sex themselves, lest they be hypocritical.

      Your first point is well taken, but that is exactly what an ad-hominem or a poisoning-of-the-well fallacy would say “Jenny doesnt’ know anything about Botox, so therefore she is wrong about vaccine ingredients”. She could be against the use of Botox and still not have a clue when she’s talking about “toxins” in vaccines. The two are not related at all.

      You’re right when you describe the comment as a “cheap jab”, that is exactly what it is. However, cheap jabs are a rhetorical tool, but not a logical one. If we as skeptics point out such cheap jabs on the other side and start labeling them as logical fallacies, we should do the same with ourselves. We do not allow the other side to use the “end justifies the means” strategy; why should we allow it for ourselves?

      • Tom Foss said, on August 25, 2010 at 10:06 PM

        It is not hypocritical for an adult to say that children should not engage in X activity or consume Y product, while the adult does just that.

        I agree, which is why I made the caveat: “If she were just against childhood vaccinations, you could argue that she thinks it’s a matter of adult consent, but I’ve never seen her make that distinction.” While the “too many, too soon” campaign is focused on children’s vaccines, I don’t see the same distinction throughout the groups McCarthy is associated with, or even in her own inconsistent statements. When she says “I’m not anti-vaccine, I’m anti-toxin,” it’s hard not to see hypocrisy.

        That being said, if McCarthy has consistently made it clear that she’s all for adults getting flu shots and tetanus boosters, I’ve missed it.

        Your first point is well taken, but that is exactly what an ad-hominem or a poisoning-of-the-well fallacy would say “Jenny doesnt’ know anything about Botox, so therefore she is wrong about vaccine ingredients”.

        Right, if you phrase it that way, it’s a logical fallacy. So we shouldn’t phrase it that way. It doesn’t mean that you can’t use that detail in a non-fallacious way, it just means we ought to be careful with how we phrase arguments. Which should be a general rule of thumb anyway.

        If we as skeptics point out such cheap jabs on the other side and start labeling them as logical fallacies, we should do the same with ourselves.

        We don’t label cheap jabs as logical fallacies, we label logical fallacies as logical fallacies. Not all cheap jabs are logical fallacies. Saying “Jenny McCarthy is a buffoon whose scientific credentials consist entirely of voicing a character on ‘Tripping the Rift'” might be a cheap jab, but it’s not fallacious unless you follow it with “therefore she’s wrong.” I have no problem with cheap jabs being used alongside reasonable arguments. Is it rhetoric? Of course it is. But unless you’re writing an academic paper on McCarthy’s career or the history of the anti-vaccine movement, then rhetoric is what you’re doing. And I can’t frankly find fault with using ridicule, satire, and flat-out insults to make sound logical fact-based arguments persuasive, entertaining, and interesting to read.

        The difference between “us” and “the other side,” inasmuch as those things exist as distinct entities, should be that we care about whether or not our arguments are valid and supported by evidence, and that we understand what logical fallacies are and how they work, rather than just using their names as buzzwords applied to any argument or tactic with which we disagree.

        • Skepdude said, on August 26, 2010 at 9:55 AM

          And yet, even if I grant you the hypocrisy charge, which I’m not sure I’m willing to yet, but I do see how you’re thinking about it, hypocrisy does not render an argument invalid. Bill Clinton could have been going around talking about the merits of spousal faithfulness while he was getting it on with Lewinski, and that could not be held against his argument.

          You’re technically correct on your last point too; a cheap jab on itself is not a logical fallacy, but look at your example : “Jenny McCarthy is a buffoon whose scientific credentials consist entirely of voicing a character on ‘Tripping the Rift”. That’s a personnal attack and says nothing at all about her arguments. It’s a disguised ad hominem, or a poisoning-the-well. The implication is clear, at least to me: She’s a buffon, she has no scientific credentials, therefore don’t listen to her.

          Many times, we don’t have to spell something out specifically, but the implication is there. Saying “Jenny is anti-toxin, but she’s shooting Botox in her face” makes a clear connection between the two. Saying “this is what Jenny says about vaccines, but she’s a buffoon with no scientific credentials” clearly implies not to listen to what she has to say about vaccines, and you cannot deny that the implications are there. You may not mean it that way, but what is perceived by the public many times is not exactly what we mean to say.

          My point is this: someone wants to take a jab at Jenny, her personal life, her choices, fine by me, have a blast. But, if someone is claiming to take a skeptical look at her position, that is not the way to go about it. If you want to look at her arguments skeptically, you must stay clear of ad hominems/non-sequiturs/jabs etc etc, especially if you’re in a position where you are being identified as a leader of the skeptics, thus my little critique of Phil Plait and the SGU folks for getting in on this act.

          • Tom Foss said, on August 27, 2010 at 9:49 PM

            And yet, even if I grant you the hypocrisy charge, which I’m not sure I’m willing to yet, but I do see how you’re thinking about it, hypocrisy does not render an argument invalid.

            Goes to credibility, your honor.

            I agree, it certainly doesn’t render the argument invalid. Further argument and evidence would need to be used to demonstrate that. Just like stating that you have credentials in a relevant scientific field isn’t proof that your arguments are correct. But in both cases, it helps to establish the speaker’s credibility, which is a component that any reasonable person should consider when evaluating that person’s arguments (particularly when the facts may not be directly examinable, or when the listener lacks relevant expertise).

            Saying “Kevin Trudeau is a convicted fraud” does not mean that any particular fact or piece of advice in his books is false; one would have to examine the evidence in order to demonstrate that. However, it is something to consider when deciding whether or not to trust him and believe what he’s saying on a given topic.

            There’s a thin line between ad hominem/poisoning the well and establishing relevant credibility or a lack thereof; it’s similar to the thin line between a fallacious argument from authority and an argument from relevant expertise. That line can be widened into a large open field by making sure that your arguments are sound and stand on their own, regardless of the credibility-establishing and cheap jabs.

            That’s a personnal attack and says nothing at all about her arguments.

            I agree. That was kind of the point, in fact. It’s why I said “I have no problem with cheap jabs being used alongside reasonable arguments.” I don’t need to tell you why Jenny McCarthy is wrong; we both know the facts, and I’m sure we can both argue them quite capably. My point is that the arguments and facts stand on their own, regardless of what you put around them. Cheap jabs on their own are all pathos and ethos, with no real substance to back them up. Using them alone to try to take down an argument may be persuasive, but is certainly not reasonable.

            But using pure logos to take down an argument–while eminently reasonable–is often the very opposite of persuasive. The lesson that any persuasive speaker should take is not that any particular mode of persuasion is superior than any other, but that the most persuasive arguments work on all three modes. Jenny and her ilk are operating on pure pathos and ethos, without a fact among them; it’s not effective rhetoric to tie two hands behind our back when presenting counterarguments.

            When I’ve put the topic of persuasive argumentation to my students, I tend to phrase it like this: pathos tells why you should care, ethos tells why you should listen to me, and logos tells why I’m right. Arguing against the antivaxxers shouldn’t be limited to the latter mode.

            It’s a disguised ad hominem, or a poisoning-the-well. The implication is clear, at least to me: She’s a buffon, she has no scientific credentials, therefore don’t listen to her.

            I didn’t know you could infer a fallacy into an argument. Once again, it’s only ad hominem if that’s all you’ve got. It’s fallacious to say “Jenny McCarthy is an idiot, therefore she’s wrong.” Saying “There is no evidence to support the hypothesis that vaccines, or any ingredient in them, is in any way linked to incidences of autism, and in fact all the evidence suggests that autism is strongly influenced by genetic factors. Also, Jenny McCarthy is an idiot” is mean, but it isn’t fallacious.

            Many times, we don’t have to spell something out specifically, but the implication is there. Saying “Jenny is anti-toxin, but she’s shooting Botox in her face” makes a clear connection between the two.

            I agree. And if Jenny McCarthy hadn’t said, flat-out, things like “I’m anti-toxin,” it might be a fallacious connection. As it is, it (once again) helps establish her credibility.

            Saying “this is what Jenny says about vaccines, but she’s a buffoon with no scientific credentials” clearly implies not to listen to what she has to say about vaccines, and you cannot deny that the implications are there.

            Yes, I agree. That is, in fact, the point. And you stated quite clearly not only what its purpose was, but also why it’s not fallacious: it “clearly implies not to listen to what she has to say.” That is the whole point of the ethos prong of argumentation: this is why you should not trust my opponent, but should trust me.

            What it does not do is say “this is why my opponent is wrong.” When used in that way, it is absolutely fallacious–such as when Paul Offit is criticized for working for the pharmaceutical industry, implying (or outright stating) a conflict of interest. Even if his interests were conflicted, it would not change the facts, which he has on his side.

            Similarly, exposing McCarthy’s lack of expertise and at least apparent hypocrisy and lack of basic relevant understanding is not, in and of itself, a valid critique of her arguments. Alone, it does nothing to demonstrate that she is wrong, and used alone it would be fallacious. When used along with evidence-based, logical arguments to counter her claims, it serves an entirely different purpose: the logical argument tells you why she’s wrong, and the ethical (for lack of a better adjective) argument tells you why you shouldn’t waste your time listening to her.

            My point is this: someone wants to take a jab at Jenny, her personal life, her choices, fine by me, have a blast. But, if someone is claiming to take a skeptical look at her position, that is not the way to go about it.

            If your only reason for taking a skeptical look is to demonstrate that she is wrong and why she is wrong, I agree. All you need for that are the facts. If your reasons for taking a skeptical look also include convincing other people that she’s wrong and you’re right, and that they ought to care about the issue, and perhaps even that putting her up against actual doctors and vaccine experts provides a sense of false balance, then I think you’re dead wrong. Because rhetoric–effective, persuasive communication–requires that you have more than just the facts on your side.

            If you want to look at her arguments skeptically, you must stay clear of ad hominems/non-sequiturs/jabs etc etc, especially if you’re in a position where you are being identified as a leader of the skeptics, thus my little critique of Phil Plait and the SGU folks for getting in on this act.

            Then I expect to see you watching and critiquing said skeptics, and others in positions of skeptical or scientific or academic prestige, whenever terms like “crank” or “fraud” or “widely dismissed” or “fringe” or “woo-woo” are used. Because every one of those terms, and plenty others, is exclusively used to discuss the credibility of a given speaker on a given subject.

            You’re outright stating that we shouldn’t use any argument that could even be confused for a fallacy, which is simply ludicrous–particularly given how often I see believers of various stripes flinging the fallacy accusation at arguments with no resemblance whatsoever. Skeptics shouldn’t be afraid of being accused of fallacious argument; they should be prepared to explain why the argument isn’t fallacious–even if the point of confusion is evident–and to back it up with evidence.

            Skeptics do not need to avoid using useful, reasonable, rhetorical techniques that are perfectly valid within their limited argumentative scope when constructing valid arguments. To do so dooms skepticism to being eminently reasonable, but terminally unconvincing. What skeptics need is to understand where the lines are separating rhetoric from fallacy, and how to do the former well while ensuring they don’t fall into the latter.

  2. Skepdude said, on August 29, 2010 at 10:04 AM

    Ok I guess we just see this differently, however I want to make one last point. You are wrong to state that “t’s only ad hominem if that’s all you’ve got”. The fallacious nature of the argument does not depend on the other arguments you may have. What you’re saying is that because we have other valid arguments against Jenny, therefore we get a pass on the ad hominem. I cannot accept that; bad logic is bad logic regardless if it is buried in a mountain of good logic. Although I must say, the way you set up the example, sure it is not a fallacy, but it still adds nothing to the argument, and if a skeptics is claiming to counter her arguments, then that comment ought not to be used.

  3. Tom Foss said, on August 29, 2010 at 10:33 AM

    Ok I guess we just see this differently, however I want to make one last point. You are wrong to state that “t’s only ad hominem if that’s all you’ve got”. The fallacious nature of the argument does not depend on the other arguments you may have. What you’re saying is that because we have other valid arguments against Jenny, therefore we get a pass on the ad hominem.

    No. The definition of ad hominem is “an attempt to link the validity of a premise to a characteristic or belief of the person advocating the premise.” It requires that you claim that some aspect of the person renders their argument valid or invalid. Saying “Jenny McCarthy was a Playboy Playmate, therefore she’s wrong about vaccination” is ad hominem. Saying “Jenny McCarthy is wrong about vaccination because all the evidence demonstrates that her arguments are false, and also she’s a former Playboy Playmate with no medical qualifications whatsoever” is not ad hominem. It may be mean-spirited, it may qualify as dirty pool, but it is not ad hominem.

    You might check out this relevant clarification from the Ad Hominem page on Wikipedia: “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.”

    Further elaboration and sources are provided at the link. I’m not advocating that we use fallacies along with valid arguments, I’m advocating that we actually take the time and effort to learn what the fallacies are and what makes them fallacious, so we don’t have to walk into an argument being afraid of saying something that looks vaguely fallacious.

    Although I must say, the way you set up the example, sure it is not a fallacy, but it still adds nothing to the argument, and if a skeptics is claiming to counter her arguments, then that comment ought not to be used.

    Adding something to the argument is in the eye of the beholder. A clever or pointed insult can add a lot of humor and entertainment to an otherwise dry argument. I won’t argue that I did that in the above example, but I also wouldn’t be likely to phrase it in that way in an actual argument.

    If, however, you think that “counter[ing] her arguments” is enough, and that nothing additional ought to be added, then I suggest you take it up with Aristotle. Skeptics need to stop using “rhetoric” as a dirty word, and recognizing that appeals to pathos and ethos, used correctly and confined to their particular strengths, are not only not fallacious, but necessary if your goal is to convince others.

  4. [...] little while ago I wrote a little post titled Skeptics Gone Wild, in which I criticized the use of an argument, which I classified as an ad hominem, against Jenny [...]

  5. [...] should have been a relatively academic conversation has become a feud, and I’m already finding it rather tiresome. I’m Phil Plait’s [...]


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