Sunday, April 21, 2013

That's an Ad Hominem Appeal to Authority!

In an Internet discussion, all one has to do is mention "Well, Einstein certainly understood relativity the way I describe it!" and you can just count on some person who knows nothing about logic immediately posting "Appeal to authority fallacy!" Of course, here it is not a fallacy, but perfectly legitimate.

Similarly, when someone acts like a complete jerk, and you write: "You are being a jerk: go away," you can bet they will respond "Ad hominem!" Once again, this is ad hominem, but not, in this case, a fallacy: you are not trying to settle the argument with your remark, but to tell the person you are done arguing, and just why that is so.

Edward Feser makes both points nicely in this post. Here is a passage I particularly liked:

"Or suppose someone gains a reputation for expertise on some important matter of public controversy when in fact his views about the matter are laughably off-base and demonstrably ill-informed. Suppose further that he manifests extreme arrogance and dismissiveness toward those who actually do have expertise on the matter, where the fact of his unjustified self-confidence only serves to reinforce, in those who don’t know any better, the false impression that he must know what he is talking about. Here too an attack on the person himself is legitimate precisely because what is at issue is one of his personal qualities, viz. his arrogant pretense of expertise. Indeed, ridicule and other polemical methods can be legitimate tools in such an attack, since arrogant pretense can often effectively be countered in no other way, and treating the offender more gently might only reinforce the false impression that he and his views are respectable. Hence it is, for example, not only legitimate, but in my view imperative, not only to refute the sophistries of smug hacks like Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss, but to administer a severe rhetorical beating as one does so."

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