Using Ad Hominem as an Argument Undermines What We Represent
February 4, 2013
As skeptics, we tend to get ourselves into situations that yield a fair amount of mentally ill or dim-witted people. Creationists putting forth theories about layers of ice above the atmosphere, homeopaths talking about water having innate material energy, naturalists asking things such as "have you had your auras balanced this month?", it all goes towards a misconception that feeds into a bad habit among skeptics. That bad habit, in my humble opinion, is using ad hominem as the only argument against new arguments that sound like old arguments.
A creationist comes up with a new apologetics argument that sounds like an old one, let's say this hypothetical creationist is talking about the red shifting of light and its relation to the age of the universe. The creationist would say,
"Red shifting only exists because the universe that God created 6000 years ago had physical properties that allowed matter in space to move much faster than the speed of light, causing a misrepresentation of red shifting and the illusion of a universe older than 6000 years"
The knee-jerk reaction from a lot of skeptics and skeptics groups I know (I am including myself in this) is to immediately resort to "Another creationist argument? What an Idiot" or a paraphrasing of the like. This reaction, as good as it feels, is easy and simple, but not effective. It gives a feeling of elation and superiority, but unfortunately it also gives a false misconception that we have won the hypothetical argument against the creationists claim.
It also presents an implication, sometimes a direct quoting of "if a person believes _________, then they must be dim-witted/mentally ill". Again, this pigeonholing of skeptical opponents feels good, to a disturbingly satisfying degree, but it does not accomplish anything. People believe for a large number of reasons, some known and evidential, and some not. It doesn't help the case that the human brain was largely designed to act in an irrational and illogical way (coming in a later article). It isn't evidenced or logical to assume someone may believe something because they are dumb/mentally ill, as we all know just how easily fooled even the smartest of us tend to be.
As skeptics, we should look at each new claim with new eyes, and evaluate new claims as such. Resorting to pigeonholing woo-peddlers based on what they represent or how similar their arguments sound to others is not practicing proper logical weighing and evaluation of claims. It is time-consuming, and it requires more mental effort, but it is more efficient. Things done correctly often are more difficult, and that is because they are done.
Now, some prominent skeptics, such as Brain Dunning, the Skeptics Guide to the Universe Podcast hosts, and even Penn and Teller resort to the immediate appeal of name calling and pigeonholing, but they do it correctly. The difference is that they openly admit to using ad hominem for what it is good for—entertainment value. They then follow up with a correct dose of logical and scientific deconstruction of the claims. If skeptics choose to use ad hominem, they should do it in that exact format. Call them an idiot for a laugh, and then get down to business.
Stooping to the ad hominem tactics of woo-peddlers is not useful in the end, as it puts us on the same illogical playing field as them (with both arguments against one another being equally hollow and irrelevant). Let's show our stuff, and wear our logic on our sleeves. Let's use ad hominem for a laugh, and then get down to proper deconstruction.