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.
It amuses me to no end when those that abuse critical thinking try to present themselves as critical thinkers, as is the case with this article at Answers In Genesis. In this article they try to explain what the Ad Hominem fallacy is, a worthy effort if properly done of course.
They do an overall pretty decent job at explaining what an Ad Hominem is, until of course the commit the big booh-booh by giving this as an example of, what they seem to consider, and Ad Hominem.
“Christianity isn’t true. You just believe in Christianity because you were brought up in a Christian home. If you were brought up in the Islam religion, you would be a Muslim now.”
Ouch! To anyone who knows a thing or two about critical thinking it is obviously clear here that there may be a logical fallacy in this argument, but it is not the Ad Hominem. It is…drum roll…the Non Sequitur, an altogether different sort of logical fallacy, one where the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premises! The premises (you are christian because you were brought up christian) does not lead to the conclusion (christianity is not true). This is not an Ad Hominem, more specifically not the circumstantial Ad Hominem, because the claim is not being rejected because of the kind of people who support it. That would be ridiculous because it would have to read as follows : Christianity is not true because christians believe it. In fact, the two things mentioned here have no bearing upon one another, therefore this is a Non Sequitur. The conclusion does not follow from the premises.
Why do I say “there may be a fallacy here”? Because it is not clear that “christianity is not true” is presented as a conclusion based on the following sentences, or as an unsupported statement. You can read the above sentences as two separate statements, the first stating what the person believes to be true, and the second stating why they think someone else holds a different belief. It does not have to be an argument, in which case there wouldn’t be a fallacy. If it is meant as an argument,then we have the Non Sequitur, but not the Ad Hominem!
The cherry on the cake comes next:
An evolutionist might argue:
“Creation isn’t true. You just believe in creation because you read that stuff on the Answers in Genesis website!”
Ah, that would be the Straw Man because an evolutionist, in general would not say that. There would be no need for it. We’d simply have to point to the fact that the creationist has not put forward any convincing evidence for his argument. That usually is enough to wrap up that conversation. It is also a bit of Poisoning The Well since this attempts to discredit “evolutionists” as people who rely on logical fallacies to win arguments, when in fact that is quite simply not true.
Oh AiG, leave the critical thinking teaching to those qualified to provide it, will ya?
I frequently find myself frustrated by people’s lack of rational thought when making arguments about various issues. In some cases it seems that people are not making an appeal to logic and rationality at all. At times emotional arguments are more appealing than rational ones. And that frustrates me. But then I realize that as a human being I am not immune to such thinking either. If I was given the choice of saving my child from death, versus saving two children (not mine) from death, I will choose my child. That is an emotional decision, not a rational one (although one can make a rational case for this choice, but at it’s core the emotions are what are driving the decision making process, if one was ever presented with this horrible choice).
I guess, the point is that in matters where we don’t have an emotional stake, we expect people to behave rationally. In matters such as religion and the paranormal, some people must have some sort of emotional investment on the line (although personally I can’t even see how that would be true for cryptozoology or UFOlogy). At least in some cases the rational option just does not make sense to them. I understand that. But I don’t have to accept it though! Just because someone may feel a big emotional attachement to religion, does not make the fact that religion is bunk any less true, doesn’t make fighting the lie wrong. I can understand how someone can be emotionally attached to alternative medicine too, especially in cases of fatal, uncurable diseases, but that does not mean I must stop fighting quackery solely because some people derive comfort out of it. On the same lines, just because some masochistic wifes may like to be beaten up by their husbands, that does not imply we should stop fighting domestic violence because of that.
Here at Skepfeeds, you will be held accountable for irational beliefs. If you make any testable claims, you will be called upon to provide evidence and good logic to support them. If you do, you’ll have my respect. If you don’t you’re in trouble. The Assumption of Rationality is alive and well.