Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Red Herrings and Other Fishy Arguments (Fallacies Part 2)

Red herrings are responses to an original argument that don’t address the original issue. They are distractions, attempts to throw off any examination of the argument on its own merit. Red herrings can be used by both sides: by the attacker to undercut the original argument, and by the defender to undercut the rebuttal.

One large class of red herring arguments involves shifting the argument from the substance to the people involved. Ad hominem arguments attack the arguer. Ad baculum arguments use threats. Ad populem arguments count numbers. Ad Hitlerian arguments accuse one side of being Nazis, or at least Nazi-like.

Argumentum ad hominem

My great-great-great-aunt Molly Elliott Seawell is a minor figure in the history of American letters. (Her former salon on P Street here in DC is on the Register of Historic Places.) The author of forty-something books, mostly boy’s adventure with some Graustarkian romance, she was famously attacked by Walt Whitman over her 1891 essay, “On the Absence of the Creative Faculty in Women.”

Yes, you read it right. And she was quite serious. A virulent anti-suffragette, Seawell denied that women had any intrinsic creativity. When the obvious counter-example came up, Seawell dismissed her own work as meritless — she was, after all, obviously only a woman.

Ad hominem arguments take a characteristic of an opponent and use that characteristic to discredit the argument. A mere insult doesn’t qualify. For example, “That jackass Joe is wrong because his facts are in error” contains an insult, but the insult isn’t part of the argument: the argument is the claim that Joe’s facts are in error. No ad hominem here.

“Joe is wrong because he is a jackass” contains the same insult, but now it’s ad hominem because the evidence that Joe is wrong is that he is a jackass. Joe may indeed be a jackass, for all we know, but that fact alone doesn’t establish that he’s incorrect.

But what if it does? If the personal characteristic does disqualify someone’s argument, or at least lessen its potency, is it still ad hominem?

Some years ago, I was asked to read a manuscript purporting to prove that relativity was false, and that only a conspiracy of physicists either too stupid or too venal to face the truth was keeping the veil of deceit intact. The author had a journalism degree and had interviewed exactly one scientist, evidently his source for the Einsteinian hoax revelation.

Is it logically incumbent on me to go through the arguments in that book step by step to refute them, or can I simply look at the skimpy credentialing and sourcing and use that as logical grounds to dismiss his argument from serious consideration?

My own answer is yes. In the unlikely event the argument has merit, it will sooner or later convince others. If the argument shows up again, this time in more credible mouths, it will be time for me to reassess.

So the first question is whether the claim is true, and the second question is whether the if-true claim actually discredits the substance of the argument. Which brings us back to Molly Elliott Seawell. Her proposition is, “My work is not creative because I am a woman.” The proposition “I am a woman” is true. It’s also possible that “My work is not creative” is true — I myself am not impressed with her literary gifts. If both propositions of the argument are true, is not the whole argument true?

The problem here is “because.” You can’t assume such a connection. If you want to assert it, you have to offer proof, in this case, that there is not only a correlation, but a causation.

Properly, the burden of proof lies on the shoulders of the side that claims the linkage. If it’s a valid linkage, you ought to be able to prove it, not just claim it. What criteria measure creativity? Are those criteria objectively valid (or at least acceptable by both sides)? What is the actual distribution among women and men? If there are differences, are they statistically significant? Have alternate explanations and theories to account for any significant differences been explored?

That’s a high burden of proof, but it’s fair. If you argue against a proposition by arguing against the person, it’s your responsibility to prove it’s not ad hominem, and if you fail, the argument’s a fallacy.

To me, Seawell’s claim is clearly ad hominem because the claim that her womanhood compromised her creative mechanism is on the face of it ridiculous. It can’t be accepted at face value; the burden of proof weighs heavily against the proposition. But that’s not the way she saw it. Her world (and her books) were filled with subservient Negroes and noble white boys. That was the way of the world, and it thus meant the burden of proof fell on the other side. The general wisdom said that women were creatively inferior; she had popular opinion on her side. But that’s argumentum ad populem, a fallacy for another day.

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