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On “Ad Hominem” and argument quality
Posted: 03 August 2007 01:12 PM   [ Ignore ]
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Is addressing someone’s motives always a form of ad hominem, and when is it not?

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Posted: 03 August 2007 01:26 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Ad hominem” is an attack on the person making the argument rather than attacking the argument itself. Depending on the circumstance, an attack on motives can be a form of ad hominem or not.

If I say that the Tobacco Institute is pushing junk science in order to sell cigarettes, that is, in part, an attack on their motives. (Motive = to sell cigarettes). But it in part also explains why they are pushing junk science rather than real science, so it is a crucial clarification of the attack against their argument.

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Posted: 03 August 2007 02:54 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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dougsmith - 03 August 2007 01:26 PM

Ad hominem” is an attack on the person making the argument rather than attacking the argument itself. Depending on the circumstance, an attack on motives can be a form of ad hominem or not.

If I say that the Tobacco Institute is pushing junk science in order to sell cigarettes, that is, in part, an attack on their motives. (Motive = to sell cigarettes). But it in part also explains why they are pushing junk science rather than real science, so it is a crucial clarification of the attack against their argument.

With regards to the Tobacco Institute, it would be an ad hominem, if you wouldn’t have explained what is wrong with their science, right?

hm.. If two persons try to assess the risks of a certain move, and one claims that the other one is “simply a coward” is it an ad hominem or not?  Personality differences can lead to biases in risk-assesment, cannot they?

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Posted: 03 August 2007 03:04 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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wandering - 03 August 2007 02:54 PM

With regards to the Tobacco Institute, it would be an ad hominem, if you wouldn’t have explained what is wrong with their science, right?

Right. If I was against the Tobacco Institute and simply said, “These guys want to sell more cigarettes!” Strictly speaking, that would be an ad hominem argument. (Although in some contexts, the rest of the argument may be taken as understood).

In order to make a good argument against them, I would need to pay careful attention to the facts in their argument, to why they did not hold up to scrutiny. In this case, I would need to show that the science that they used was, in fact, junk science.

wandering - 03 August 2007 02:54 PM

hm.. If two persons try to assess the risks of a certain move, and one claims that the other one is “simply a coward” is it an ad hominem or not?  Personality differences can lead to biases in risk-assesment, cannot they?

I wouldn’t get too hung up on the logical fallacies. Just try to be clear about what is being argued.

In this case, “simply a coward” is more of an epithet than an argument. I mean, obviously the question is, why is this course of action too risk-averse? So I would also say it “begs the question”.

But yes, strictly speaking I suppose it would also be a form of ad hominem as it stands.

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Posted: 03 August 2007 03:20 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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wandering - 03 August 2007 02:54 PM

hm.. If two persons try to assess the risks of a certain move, and one claims that the other one is “simply a coward” is it an ad hominem or not?  Personality differences can lead to biases in risk-assesment, cannot they?

Yes, but I think your example is tricky: while two differents personalities could lead to different risk evaluations, two differents personalities could not lead to a different physics law.

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Posted: 03 August 2007 09:44 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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wandering - 03 August 2007 02:54 PM

hm.. If two persons try to assess the risks of a certain move, and one claims that the other one is “simply a coward” is it an ad hominem or not?  Personality differences can lead to biases in risk-assesment, cannot they?

That example is also an example of the critical thinking fallacy of improper analogy.  If the first person claims the move suggested by the other person has a much higher likelihood of causing death, so is irrational, that would not be ad hominem. 

Occam

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Posted: 05 August 2007 09:53 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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dougsmith - 03 August 2007 03:04 PM
wandering - 03 August 2007 02:54 PM

With regards to the Tobacco Institute, it would be an ad hominem, if you wouldn’t have explained what is wrong with their science, right?

Right. If I was against the Tobacco Institute and simply said, “These guys want to sell more cigarettes!” Strictly speaking, that would be an ad hominem argument. (Although in some contexts, the rest of the argument may be taken as understood).

In order to make a good argument against them, I would need to pay careful attention to the facts in their argument, to why they did not hold up to scrutiny. In this case, I would need to show that the science that they used was, in fact, junk science.

wandering - 03 August 2007 02:54 PM

hm.. If two persons try to assess the risks of a certain move, and one claims that the other one is “simply a coward” is it an ad hominem or not?  Personality differences can lead to biases in risk-assesment, cannot they?

I wouldn’t get too hung up on the logical fallacies. Just try to be clear about what is being argued.

In this case, “simply a coward” is more of an epithet than an argument. I mean, obviously the question is, why is this course of action too risk-averse? So I would also say it “begs the question”.

But yes, strictly speaking I suppose it would also be a form of ad hominem as it stands.


I am still not sure it is not a valid argument. It is impossible to rate exactly the level of risk. People attach different levels of risks to different situations based upon their personalities, and then rationalize this as “objective risk levels”. You don’t agree with this? Have not you noticed this?

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Posted: 05 August 2007 11:36 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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wandering - 05 August 2007 09:53 AM

I am still not sure it is not a valid argument. It is impossible to rate exactly the level of risk. People attach different levels of risks to different situations based upon their personalities, and then rationalize this as “objective risk levels”. You don’t agree with this? Have not you noticed this?

Let’s leave the issue of “validity” aside; it’s a red herring. (“Valid” simply means that it has the proper logical form, and we’re not talking seriously about logical form here).

What you were asking before is if the argument were ad hominem. It isn’t. Now you’re basically asking if the argument is a good one, evidence-based in some sense rather than based on something subjective and impossible to quantify accurately.

It is very difficult to know whether the argument is a good one or not without actually seeing the argument. But certainly there are some aspects of risk-assessment that are as objective as one could want anything to be. When insurance companies write policies they do so based on actuarial tables. These tables are themselves based on long, detailed, data-rich histories of similar occurrences happening, broken down by the relevant variables. (E.g., if you are a single male 18 years old, how likely is it that you will get into an automobile accident in the next 12 months?)

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Posted: 06 August 2007 10:37 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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dougsmith - 05 August 2007 11:36 AM

Let’s leave the issue of “validity” aside; it’s a red herring. (“Valid” simply means that it has the proper logical form, and we’re not talking seriously about logical form here).

What you were asking before is if the argument were ad hominem. It isn’t. Now you’re basically asking if the argument is a good one, evidence-based in some sense rather than based on something subjective and impossible to quantify accurately.

It is very difficult to know whether the argument is a good one or not without actually seeing the argument. But certainly there are some aspects of risk-assessment that are as objective as one could want anything to be. When insurance companies write policies they do so based on actuarial tables. These tables are themselves based on long, detailed, data-rich histories of similar occurrences happening, broken down by the relevant variables. (E.g., if you are a single male 18 years old, how likely is it that you will get into an automobile accident in the next 12 months?)

I agree with the example above, sometimes risk-assessment can be objective. But do you agree that sometimes risk-assessment is based more upon personality inclinations than facts (when the risks are unknown)? In such a case, would an argument saying “you are just being a coward, fearing too much” be a good one?

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Posted: 06 August 2007 10:46 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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NB: I’ve split this off from the prior thread, as we’ve gotten well off the other topic about god.

wandering - 06 August 2007 10:37 AM

I agree with the example above, sometimes risk-assessment can be objective. But do you agree that sometimes risk-assessment is based more upon personality inclinations than facts (when the risks are unknown)? In such a case, would an argument saying “you are just being a coward, fearing too much” be a good one?

I’d have to have an example to work with.

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Posted: 07 August 2007 08:05 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Two people are in doubt whether to go swim in the sea, when no baywatch is present. Both are more or less in the same physical shape, and their swimming ability is not different.

They are arguing whether it is dangerous or not to go swimming. They make some objective “scientific” arguments (measuring the height of the waves). They agree on on them, but somehow still differ about the risk-level of the swimming. Then one says “oh, you are just a coward”.

Is this rational? It seems not to, but I cannot find what to attribute the differences of the risk-assesment between them besides character-traits.

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Posted: 07 August 2007 09:25 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Hmmm ... I dunno. The problem is that measuring the height of the waves is hardly a science. Undertow is a bigger threat, and that is not visible from the shore. There is enough vagueness and room for differences of opinion here that I can’t say whether it’s rational or not. I’d have to see the waves.

Let’s put it another way. The law often uses the test of a “reasonable person” ... what would a reasonable person say in this situation? Now, there are many, many intermediate situations where we can’t say for sure. But let’s force the situation: say the two of them are standing on a Caribbean beach, sunny, no bad weather, three-inch waves lapping the shore. No sign of strong currents. (Let’s say they’re in a bay, to make it easier). Then yes, the person who wouldn’t go in the water seems to have some problem with phobia or cowardice. More likely, it would be some sort of phobia: if that sort of water is too dangerous, it would seem that any sort of water would be.

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Posted: 07 August 2007 11:57 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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I think the example speaks to the same issue as the Tobacco Lobby example. Making a statement about a person who is presenting an argument can be either an ad hominem (trying to invalidate or just avoid the argument itself by attacking the person) or it can be reasonable information that does actually address the argument to some extent. Pointing out, for example, that a person has a financial interest in supporting the side in a conflict for which they are arguing may not directly invalidate their argument, but it can be a reasonable piece of evidence to call into question the objectivity of their data. Similarly, saying that a person is persisting in an argument which seems to be pretty weak despite strong evidence to the contrary because of cognitive dissonance or stubborness may be a comment about the person rather than the argument itself, but it is relevant to the argument’s validity and so is not purely ad hominem. In the example about cowardice, being irrationally afraid of minimal risks (i.e. cowardice) is a characteristic that has salience for the person’s assessment of risk, and calls into question the objectivity of their assessment. As such, it seems relevant to the merits of their argument even though it is primarily a statement about the person, so I would not call it an ad hominem if it was a statement made in good faith and with some justification. It could be an ad hominem, however, if it was simple raised without justification based on knowledge of the person but simply to undercut or avoid their argument.

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Posted: 07 August 2007 12:20 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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The question in all of these cases has got to be “What is the argument?”

If the reply to the argument takes it seriously, giving reasons for why it doesn’t work, then to that extent the reply isn’t ad hominem.

If the reply to the argument doesn’t take it seriously, but rather avoids it, substituting a frivolous attack on the personality or personal history of the person making the argument, then it is an ad hominem.

In my above case of the Caribbean waves, the person saying “You have a phobia!” is taking the argument seriously. He’s looking at wave height, likelihood of undertow, strong currents, bad weather, anything that could possibly be a safety issue. When he comes up with nothing, at that point it’s at least plausible to ask whether the person making the argument isn’t having some psychological difficulty with coming to terms with the evidence.

In the case of the Tobacco Institute, simply saying “these people are corrupt” is ad hominem, unless it is accompanied by a serious attempt to come to terms with their actual argument (e.g., by showing that the evidence they provide about the healthiness of smoking is not persuasive). However, if accompanied by such an argument, the additional evidence that these people are being payed by tobacco firms is of some relevance. As Brennen said.

All this is a long way of getting back to my concern above: that we not take these “logical fallacies” overly seriously. There is a lot of ink wasted on a sort of spot-the-fallacy approach to argument. IMO it’s better to leave aside the latin terminology and simply work to focus on the reasons provided. Leave aside the rhetoric and emotion, so much as one can, and figure out what the evidence is and if it supports the conclusion.

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Posted: 07 August 2007 02:34 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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The math. models produces a risk quantification, but a persons decides if a risk quantity (or, more precisely, probability) is too high. I remeber a bank credit models which stated: if you ask for X,Y,Z to the credit takers, your morosity will be 15%. if you ask for X,Y, your morosity will be 20% and so on (it was based on nice neural networks algorithm who take as an input the historical data, a really cool and fun thing ) . At the end, was a person who decided which risk would be too much for the bank to take. Clearly, a 0 risk is not convenient (you rejected a lot of honest people who were willing to pay) to achieve this.

I’d say that while we could quantificate the risk, it is used as an objetive meassure to support our, in the end, emotional decisions.


I’d sayd that the cowardy epitec is not an argument at all, even if the receiver is really afraid of a trivial situation, the argument doens’t describe it.

Anyway, I agree with Doug: the clasification is just a guide, a good repository to know the kinds of intelectual cheats we face

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Posted: 07 August 2007 03:05 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Barto, I assume by “morosity” you mean “delinquency”, as in the “delinquency rate” on a loan.

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