February 1, 2008

Friday fallacy funnies

One of my pet peeves (I tend to cultivate a number of them) turns on the expression "ad hominem" as it is often popularly applied. Many people think it means simply "insult," as if calling someone a stooge or a buffoon is an ad hominem. Not so.

Argumentum ad hominem (argument against the man, or person) is a type of logical fallacy, committed when one attempts to undermine an opponent's argument by claiming something about the opponent's character affects the quality of the argument itself. The fallacy obtains from the fact that there is no logical connection between the argument stated and the character of the person putting forward the argument. In other words, bad people can make good arguments; being bad cannot per se make your argument bad.

Misunderstandings over what ad hominem means are not confined to your garden variety Daily Kos comment-leaving trolls, either. Consider the following, from a quartet of well-heeled Milwaukee attorneys working for silk stocking firms down the road from your humble correspondent:
False advertisements or ad hominem attacks are never appropriate. But Wisconsin citizens are smart enough to distinguish between fair criticism and scurrilous smears.
"Scurrilous smears" are not in and of themselves ad hominem. While ad hominem may involve a scurrilous smear, ad hominem requires that the smear is put to use for the purpose of undermining an otherwise perfectly valid and well supported argument. A smear or an insult standing alone are just those, a smear or an insult.

Another thing about the ad hominem is that they are often easy to find, although truly textbook quality examples are less common. By fortuitous coincidence I just happened to find one this morning at, of all places, the online lair of one Daniel Suhr (see below) made all the more comical by the website's title block, which declares the entire domain to be devoted to "Systematically Debunking Liberal Rhetoric."

Here, let me show you it.

Following a wistful missive entitled, "I'm tired of John McCain's lies," a fellow named Gregory chimes in to offer a number of eminently reasonable observations on the recent GOP Florida presidential primary. Moments later, the aforementioned Suhrian associate Brian, author of the wistful missive, rejoins:

You’re a Democrat. That isn’t an accusation, that’s a fact. Do you think I’m going to take anything you say seriously? Of course liberals like you prefer McCain to Romney. So does the collectivist New Yawk Times.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is worthy of submittal to Prentice Hall.

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