Ad Hominem; Or, Bad Reasoning in the Real World Part 12

Sisters and Brothers,

Once again Australian politics has shown itself to be fertile ground for those of us who like to point bad reasoning when we see it (I’m shocked). For those who don’t know the climate change “debate” in Australia is essentially a running joke, with frankly bizarre conspiracy theories getting mainstream press, and many prominent politicians repeatedly claiming that either the climate isn’t changing, or that it is but Human activity has nothing to do with it. Or most amusingly that we shouldn’t have wind farms because they’re ugly (that is actually their best reason, not a shovel article).

Within this context Senator Larissa Waters yesterday asked whether the Prime Minister Tony Abbott had a response to the Pope’s recent comments on climate change. This was also an attempt, I suspect, for Waters and her party the Greens — who are traditionally much better at communicating with those who self-identify as atheist — to highlight common ground with the Catholic Church. None-the-less the question is relevant because the Prime Minister strongly self-identifies as Catholic and so the Pope’s position may well lead to the Prime Minister changing his mind on climate change.

Now the response to Waters in the Senate is what I’d like to focus on here. Aside from some expected name calling (“bloody bigot” “disgusting”), Senator Barry O’Sullivan interjected asking Waters if she was married. How this is supposed to function as an attack on her escapes me, but none-the-less that was clearly the intent. Apparently we should not listen to women who aren’t married (this is a long running strategy from the Prime Minister’s, in fact conservative, Liberal Party who questioned former Prime Minister Gillard’s capacity to love because she was unmarried and had no children).

This argument is a prime example of what we call an Ad Hominem Fallacy. This fallacy takes the form of highlighting some irrelevant feature of a person, in this case their marital status, an using that to attack their argument, or question, or conclusion. When laid out like this the argument is clear fallacious:

Question: will the Prime Minister be changing his position on climate change in light of the Pope’s teachings?

Response: we shouldn’t answer that because the asker is not married.

Not only fallacious of course, but catastrophically sexist (male senators never have their questions rejected on the grounds that they aren’t married).

It’s important to distinguish the Ad Hominem Fallacy from some other arguments we see in the public sphere which sometimes look superficially similar. It is not committing the Ad Hominem Fallacy to question someone’s trustworthiness when you have specific grounds for thinking they might be lying. This is most relevant in cases of testimony. For example, we don’t ask the goalkeeper if the ball crossed the goal line because of well known biases that come with perceiving sport when a member of a team. In this case we treat the goalkeeper’s testimony that the ball didn’t cross the line as untrustworthy because we have good reason to suppose that their perception is biased (even if we don’t think they’re lying about what they saw). Similarly, despite what Joe Hockey would have us believe it is not committing the Ad Hominem fallacy to question someone’s qualifications to perform a specific professional job when they show evidence that they are not qualified for the job in question. Neither of these cases are instances of the fallacy because they deploy specific evidence regarding a person’s capacity to make a particular judgement or to complete a specific task.

Instances of the fallacy, in contrast, highlight some irrelevant, but apparently undesirable, feature of person to attack a question, argument or conclusion when stands independently of the person asking, arguing or concluding. Anyone could have asked Water’s question and it would have been relevant regardless of whether or not they where married.

with love, DrNPC

Once last note: to my mind the Ad Hominem Fallacy is the most basic mistake one can make in argument. It’s essentially responding to everything by saying “so’s your face”. If we are in an instance when Senator’s, who are presumably well educated, still think that this is an appropriate way to conduct themselves when discussing important issues like climate change, faith and leadership in the Catholic Church one really has to wonder if our education system is achieving the goals we, as a society, want it to. Perhaps it is time to properly fund education, end the absurd private/public division and the end the over the top political interference in the content of course we’ve seen this century.

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