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My rug has been pissed on

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on August 30, 2010

A 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 McCarthy that goes like this:

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.

That post sparked a mini-war in the comments with Tom, of Dubito Ergo Sum, who disagreed with me (see comments on my Skeptics Gone Wild post). That mini war then spilled over on Twitter where we had a brief, so to speak, exchange of messages. I could post screen shots of the exchange but I’m not gonna waste time, as Tom has written quite an extensive entry in his blog about the whole thing, titled In which I piss on the ‘Dude’s rug.

Now these blogging “wars” tend to get longer and longer with each reply, so I will not go over Tom’s entry point by point but I will add some clarifications about the main points that he makes, in an effort to keep these entries as short as possible, and since I am not interested in conflict, but dialogue.

It appears to me that both myself, and Tom, have been affected by Phil Plait Don’t be a Dick talk, in different ways. I took Phil’s talk and turned it around on myself, and understood, and agreed with, what he was saying. Tom appears to have taken the opposite stance, the “hell no” stance that people like PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins seem to favor. Which is fine I guess; what most of us are doing is highly personal and each of us will make decisions about how to go about it.

However, the more I read Tom’s replies, tweets and blog post, the more I agree with Phil’s talk, because I can see first hand how some of the points that he makes, and he does make some good points, are affected, at least in my eyes by the, dare-I-say arrogant, way in which he, at times, communicates them.

During our exchange, I have been referred to as: a self-proclaimed skeptic, poor Skepdude, a springboard, and apparently somehow I’ve led Tom to the pessimistic expectation that I would not approve his last comment on my blog, the only one of his comments that went to moderation for some weird reason, thank you WordPress, and wasn’t approved until later that day. Sarcasm is acceptable in debating I grant, but I must ask: how necessary is it when you have a good argument to make AND an audience that, presumably, understands logic? To me Tom’s reliance on sarcasm along the way means that he’s either getting personal satisfaction out of its use; or he thinks the audience witnessing our discussion will be more easily persuaded via cheap shots than a good argument, or that the sarcasm will make his real arguments more persuasive, or a combination, or some other reason I cannot think of.

So first, let us go over what sparked this whole thing specifically the personal attack on Jenny McCarthy: is it or isn’t it an ad hominem? to which my response is: Does that really matter much in relation to the overall message I was trying to convey? Even if I turn out to be wrong on my classification of it as an ad hominem, does the personal attack on Jenny McCarthy have any bearing on the arguments that she makes? I will refrain from repeating myself at this point. I will only direct the reader to my original entry and ask them to look at my tobacco example, then make up your own mind if adding the “Jenny shoots Botox on her face” personal attack is warranted or not, ad hominem or not!

Secondly, my position has been straw manned a little bit, I’d like to believe unintentionally. Never did I say, or imply I believe, in our exchange that in communicating to or with the public “we can ignore ethos and pathos, and argue on logos alone”, and if something I have said may have come across that way, well then I take this chance to publicly clarify that this is not what I stand for.

I may have been wrong in classifying the Jenny-Botox attack as an ad hominem (which I am not convinced of yet for the record), but my main point was that we should not allow ourselves to be sloppy thinkers, that we shouldn’t fail to cast a critical eye on our own arguments to ensure that we are not committing the same mistakes that we accuse the “other side” of committing, that the end does not justify the means so to speak.  How one jumps from that to arguing on logos only, I do not comprehend.

Of course, facts and statistics are dry and fail, on their own, to be very convincing to the general public; of course we need passion and the use of rhetoric, and emotions when discussing or debating these issues in public. I think that those are absolutely necessary to win in the court of public opinion, but that does not translate that therefore every rhetoric tactic is fair game, that every emotion is fair game, because I happen to believe, or to have come to the conclusion (whichever way you like to phrase it), that some don’t work as well as we think they do, at least from what I have heard psychologists say about human communication. But I do not intend to turn this into a “what’s the most effective way of communicating” thing, because I don’t think I can add anything besides personal experience to the debate, and we skeptics know how personal anecdotes can lead us astray.

The take home point here is that just because I am advocating against the use of ad hominems/personal attacks does not logically lead to the conclusion that therefore I am advocating for “arguing on logos” only. Are ridicule & sarcasm all there is for us to draw on? What about empathy? I don’t hear Tom making the case for expressing empathy anywhere in his defense of arguing with pathos.

The last point I want to make revolves about something Tom said in regards to the Ad Hominem. He maintains that if all you said is that Jenny is against toxins but she uses Botox, that would be an ad hominem, and we both seem to agree there. Then he also says that because we have other valid arguments to counter her toxins nonsense, the Botox thing no longer is an ad hominem, but it is demoted, so to speak, to a simple personal attack status. At least that’s how I understand his argument, I hope I’m not setting up a straw man here; I’d hate to do that, but my only comment is this: a logical fallacy is a logical fallacy, regardless if it is preceded, or immediately followed, by any number of valid arguments. In other words a rotten apple in a basket full of good apples, is still a rotten apple. Now, I am not a philosopher, and that may be a naive view, and I am willing to defer to the expertise of professional philosophers on this issue, but until then, this is what I think.

So, not being a philosopher by training, I have to say that I have but a layman’s understanding of the Ad Hominem. To my understanding it goes like this:

  1. Person makes claim X
  2. We point out something about the person (unrelated to X)
  3. We reject X based on 2

Now I am sure that there must be subtle variations and such, but the bottom line is we reject an argument someone makes based on some quality of the person, without really addressing the argument. So in Jenny’s case we have the following:

  1. Jenny argues that vaccines have toxins that are dangerous to children.
  2. We point out that Jenny uses Botox on herself

So where does that leave us? Well as both Tom and I have said, it depends on the context. The 3rd requirement for the Ad Hominem (therefore Jenny is wrong about toxins in vaccines) hasn’t been said in actual words. I maintain that when 1 & 2 are used together they imply, regardless of what the author may or may not desire to imply, that Jenny is wrong about 1, in certain cases based on the context. I specifically linked to a blog entry by Phil Plait that used the whole Jenny-Botox thing that I thought was a case where the implication was there hovering in the air, even if Phil may not have meant it that way. Go, read that entry yourself, and decide if I am right or wrong.

Now can the fact that she uses Botox be used in an argument in ways which would make it not an Ad Hominem? Sure it can, and Tom formulates examples himself, which are not the formulations I’m having an issue with anyway, but as he himself says it is still a personal attack, which adds nothing to the conversation. It is a poor tool to use in a public debate anyway (she can easily counter with “what does that have to do with vaccines? So I am misinformed about Botox, but I’m not here to discuss Botox, which is used by adults, but the health and safety of our children; so stop attacking my personal life style choices.“) in which case you’ve already lost the public opinion war, and you will be perceived as an arrogant person trying to belittle a mom who’s fighting for her son’s, and other children’s, wellbeing. Try explaining then that what you did was not an ad hominem attack.

If you think that facts and statistics are too dry, do you think that discussing in detail what is and what isn’t, philosophically speaking, a proper ad-hominem, would be more…wet for lack of proper terms, if what you’re trying to accomplish is to win the public’s hearts and minds?

7 Responses

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  1. Tom Foss said, on August 30, 2010 at 10:46 PM

    Tom appears to have taken the opposite stance, the “hell no” stance that people like PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins seem to favor.

    Actually, my stance is that Phil’s talk offered no substantive advice and addressed a non-problem, and his further clarifications have only exposed the lack of any reasonable, consistent definition to the term “dick.”

    But thanks for calling me one in that roundabout fashion.

    During our exchange, I have been referred to as: a self-proclaimed skeptic, poor Skepdude, a springboard, and apparently somehow I’ve led Tom to the pessimistic expectation that I would not approve his last comment on my blog, the only one of his comments that went to moderation for some weird reason, thank you WordPress, and wasn’t approved until later that day.

    The “self-proclaimed skeptic” was a jab, I’ll admit, and a pretty meaningless one at that. It was borne out of my frustration over this whole “definition of ad hominem” thing, which, while I’ve had to explain it many times to believers of various stripes, I’ve never actually encountered a skeptic who didn’t seem to get it.

    The rest, however, were not meant to be mean-spirited, and I apologize if they came off that way. I started writing the post because, as you said, the comment got oddly held up in moderation, and I suspected the worst. It wouldn’t be the first time that I saw people–including fellow skeptics and science-minded people who I’d think better of–would use moderation as a way to censor unwanted comments.You let the post through before I finished writing it, so I excised the bits about moderation and put in a justification of why I was still bothering to write it.

    By that time, I realized that the post wasn’t actually all that much about you or your post, but I used both to go off on tangents that were worth mentioning. I felt genuinely bad about using you as a springboard to go off onto other subjects, and was trying to express that. However, I can see where my more heated tone previously–and thereafter–would make you interpret those comments as sarcasm and derision. In those cases, I assure you, I was being quite genuine.

    To me Tom’s reliance on sarcasm along the way means that he’s either getting personal satisfaction out of its use; or he thinks the audience witnessing our discussion will be more easily persuaded via cheap shots than a good argument, or that the sarcasm will make his real arguments more persuasive, or a combination, or some other reason I cannot think of.

    The other reason that you cannot think of is that it’s just the way I am. I am sarcastic by nature; it’s the way I write. Sometimes it comes out more than others, but snark and sarcasm tend to be my idling phase. I suppose I do get some entertainment out of it, but if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be writing.

    Does that really matter much in relation to the overall message I was trying to convey?

    Yes. A main component of your point was that the comment was an ad hominem attack, and “we ought to be better than that.” I think we ought to be better than making inaccurate accusations of logical fallacies.

    Even if I turn out to be wrong on my classification of it as an ad hominem, does the personal attack on Jenny McCarthy have any bearing on the arguments that she makes?

    No, but it has at least some bearing on her credibility, which is a consideration in listening to her. Which I have kind of said, like, several times. She doesn’t get on TV because the arguments she makes are somehow credible or valid, she gets on TV because people think she’s a reliable source for this information. If her personality and personal character had nothing to do with it, if her platform were only about her arguments, then why her? Why not Jay Gordon or Andrew Wakefield? There’s a reason that Jenny McCarthy is the face of the movement, and that has a lot to do with her apparent credibility as a “mother warrior.” Demonstrating that she is not credible is an important part of the fight against her anti-vaccination views.

    but my main point was that we should not allow ourselves to be sloppy thinkers, that we shouldn’t fail to cast a critical eye on our own arguments to ensure that we are not committing the same mistakes that we accuse the “other side” of committing

    A laudable point. And my main point was that such a critical eye should be informed; we gain nothing from turning an overly critical eye on ourselves and excising arguments because they look like they might be mistaken for fallacies but actually aren’t.

    Secondly, my position has been straw manned a little bit, I’d like to believe unintentionally. Never did I say, or imply I believe, in our exchange that in communicating to or with the public “we can ignore ethos and pathos, and argue on logos alone”,

    I apologize if I’m mistakenly reading some passive aggression into “I’d like to believe unintentionally,” but since I am, these are the key comments that led me to take from your posts advocacy of a ‘logic-only’ approach:

    “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”
    “However, cheap jabs are a rhetorical tool, but not a logical one.”
    “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”

    The denigration of “rhetorical tools” and elevation of “logical” ones was really the big bit. Sorry if that’s not what you implied; strange how one might infer things which aren’t actually meant.

    that does not translate that therefore every rhetoric tactic is fair game, that every emotion is fair game

    I agree.

    I don’t hear Tom making the case for expressing empathy anywhere in his defense of arguing with pathos.

    Because it wasn’t relevant to this discussion. In fact, I don’t think I’ve given a single example of pathos the whole time, except to say that it tells your audience why they should care. Obviously empathy would be a good strategy there, and I think that’s one of the biggest rhetorical strengths of the pro-vaccine movement. The anti-vaxxers’ pathos relies on denigrating children with autism as “damaged,” which often bites them in the tuchus. We, on the other hand, have the key point that infective disease kills infants, and while that’s quite tragic, it also gives us a very strong position from which to use pathos.

    As to the point of ad hominem, I frankly don’t know where to go anymore. I’ve directed you to sources, and you’ve had it explained directly to you in my comments by someone with a philosophy degree. A phrase in isolation cannot be a logical fallacy; in order for something to be a logical fallacy, it must first be an argument. A fallacious argument, by definition, is one in which the conclusion does not logically follow from the premises. This is why your apple analogy is flawed. The fallacious nature is not contained within that phrase like the taint of an apple; it results only from its placement in a larger argumentative context.

    A more accurate analogy would be that the Jenny/Botox phrase is like a sausage. If you put it into a chocolate cake, it would be wildly out of place, and might ruin the whole thing. However, placed on its own, or with various other grilled meats, or in a breakfast array, it can be a perfectly fine addition to the meal.

    As to Phil’s post, again, I think you misunderstand, and the point is right there in Phil’s title: “Why you should listen to celebrities.” The post is not about Jenny McCarthy’s anti-vaccination claims or arguments, it is about her reliability and credibility. In that context, personal attacks are not only a valid consideration, but I have a hard time thinking of what would be more valid. Phil isn’t, anywhere in that post, arguing whether she is right or wrong. He is using examples of stupid, somewhat hypocritical, often contradictory positions she has held to demonstrate that she is not credible, and that people should not listen to what she has to say.

    Which would be a permutation of the argument I labeled #3, and thus, in fact, is a “formulation you’re having an issue with.”

    Sorry for the point-by-point. I hope it wasn’t too lengthy.

    • Skepdude said, on August 31, 2010 at 8:31 PM

      Tom, thank you for the clarifications.

  2. Brian said, on September 6, 2010 at 3:03 AM

    Character attacks seem potentially fair to me, if there is reason to believe the subject is being given credibility because of their perceived superior character.

    So long as it isn’t part of a fallacious argument, it could even be justified if it makes the writing more fun to read/write and increase its exposure/chance of being written.

    The first bit is why I absolutely side with Tom here, though it is an application of a broad principle that covers many other cases; the second is why I disagree with the dick speech. There’s more to life than being a humorless scold. Really, if you could permanently muzzle Chris Hedges or Karen Armstrong, which would you choose? (I tried to pick people with identical views, one a boorish dick, the other a nagging scold, both of whom are fonts of nonsense).

  3. rabbit said, on October 3, 2010 at 5:37 PM

    I see that it could be called an ad hominem but probably actually wasn’t meant as one. The keyword here is toxin. Toxins to Jenny are some magical things which have magical effects and can possibly be magically inactivated. They are the root of all evil, essentially the newage version of demons.

    Botox is not just any toxin, it is THE toxin par excellence.

    If she is on the one hand going OMG toxins BAD and on the other going botox yes PLEASE, that points to her own internal inconsistency and can be fairly used against her.

    Re: dickery- I’m all for it. If that’s how Tom gets his point across, IMHO he can be a douchebag all day long. It takes all kinds.

  4. rabbit said, on October 3, 2010 at 5:38 PM

    Wait, did I see “Jenny McCarthy is like a sausage?” Please tell me I did….

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  6. [...] 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 [...]


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