Ad hominem

Oct. 4, 2019

I have been seeing some political leaders and pundits talking negatively about Greta Thunberg in news stories recently. That has me reflecting on how people deal with facts and evidence that appear to be contrary to their beliefs. For some, when there are few or no facts or evidence to support their beliefs, they resort to character assassination in an attempt to affirm misconceptions. 

Greta has done more recently to galvanize global action on climate change than any other individual I can think of and I can think of many such as the Pope, every major world leader (except U.S., Russia, N Korea and Syria), 97% of scientists, many actors and musicians. Her persistence and leadership is amazing. And all she is asking politicians to do is listen to the science, the facts and evidence, and then to fashion evidence-based policies that protect the future of generations to follow. Yet some adults cannot seem to recognize and respect these qualities, resorting to name-calling and bullying to make their points. Some claim she is a pawn, but she seems informed and highly concerned about the inaction of our generation. 

"The haters are as active as ever", the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist posted on social media on Thursday, "going after me, my looks, my clothes, my behavior and my differences". Anything, she says, rather than talk about the climate crisis. Don't these things seem so petty compared to global climate change. 

In logical argumentation this fallacy is called Ad hominem (Latin for "to the person"), short for argumentum ad hominem. It typically refers to a fallacious argumentative strategy whereby genuine discussion of the topic at hand is avoided by instead attacking the character, motive, or other attribute of the person making the argument, or persons associated with the argument, rather than attacking the substance of the argument itself. Why can't we discuss the substance rather than insignificant surface attributes. 

A similar thing happened with the so-called Climategate study. But in that case, it backfired on the network that attacked the character of one of the scientists involved, Dr Michael Mann. It is difficult to even bring a slander case to court due to our first Amendment, but Dr Mann’s slander case not only went to court, but he won. It turns out facts and evidence matter in a court case. But, unfortunately, that network does not correct their falsehoods or report on their own mistakes. So, to this day people will claim that scientists are manipulating data and use this sensationalized wikileak media event for their argument, but they are totally unaware of the rest of the story. Attacking the scientist did not work because he had peer reviewed facts and evidence.  

This avoidance of the facts by attacking the messenger’s character is a form of propaganda when it is used by our politicians. Beyond the topic of this blog, the environment, there seems to be a huge problem with this type of behavior with POTUS. Apparently anyone who disagrees with him is a traitor, a savage, tainted, a spy, corrupt, crooked,a liar etc (these are his words). Trump's epithetical bullying helps cement lies as truth, painting complicated situations as a problem of character and difficult truths as fake news. Rather than depending on facts and evidence to make civil arguments, he name-calls and bullies. You know, bullies are never the hero of the story.

When it comes to how do we know what we know, we need to reflect if information comes from reliable sources. Is it fact or is it opinion? Has the research been peer reviewed? We need to understand the facts rather than examine the character of the messenger when it comes to scientific topics where facts and evidence matter. Luckily, the court system is less influenced by media and sensationalism, just the facts mam. This is the bottom line of defense for many environmental policies, a system where Ad hominem arguments are recognized for the logical fallacies that they are.