I’ve been meaning to write this article for a while but I’ve been pretty busy recently banking all those checks from “big pharma” companies and living the high life on the proceeds. Also, this last week has been full of Libertarian Party meetings. We’ve been busy planning to remove all labor, environmental and safety regulations from corporations; it’s very time consuming.
Seriously, I have been accused of those things recently: in The Huffington Post and in the comments. Funny thing, the accusers always think this refutes the arguments I’ve been making, as if an (alleged) affiliation with (say) the Libertarians somehow magically changes Robert F. Kennedy’s article so that it’s now true instead of a pack of lies. Well they’re wrong. This mode of reasoning is a logical fallacy known as ad hominem: attacking the person presenting the argument, instead of pointing out a flaw in their actual argument. It’s a fallacy because even if the criticism of the person is true, his argument may still be valid. You can only tell if the argument is valid by examining the actual argument to see if it is actually valid.
I can show what I mean by presenting three possible scenarios:
Just supposing I really am a paid shill for the pharma companies. I’m writing my piece because I’m paid to express those views, not because I have arrived at them by honestly examining facts and evidence. That means I’m writing my piece irrespective of the facts, and so my piece may well be factually inaccurate. If that’s true, it should be easy for my opponent to point out these inaccuracies shouldn’t it? So why don’t they? Why do they insist instead on just saying I’m a pharma industry shill? Surely what matters is if the argument I have presented is correct or not?
Alternatively, suppose I’m still a pharma industry shill, and I’m still writing my piece because I’m paid to do so, but suppose that my piece just happens to coincide with the facts. My piece is factually correct, purely by accident. So what is the relevance that I am a pharma industry shill? My piece is correct regardless. Surely what matters is that the argument I have presented is correct?
Case 3 I’m not a paid shill for the pharma companies, and I have written my piece based on what I think is a good honest evaluation of the facts and evidence. Of course, my arguments could still be wrong – I’m only human after all. So how does anyone tell if my argument is correct? Surely they would still have to examine my arguments to see if they are correct or not?
In all three cases above, my status vis-à-vis being paid by the pharma industry or not is irrelevant: what is important is the data – if my piece is correct or not. It’s always the data that’s important, not my political affiliations, not who pays me, not my qualifications (or alleged lack thereof), not any other agenda I might have. Nothing about me is important. Only the data is important.
Attacking the person instead of the argument they present is intellectually lazy. It’s a substitute for thinking. It’s also 100% flawed reasoning: you don’t arrive at the conclusion from the argument presented. The funny thing is, people on both sides of the political spectrum criticize the other side for this method of debate, and yet they don’t realize they do it themselves. For example, those on the left will rail at Karl Rove for smearing his opponents and yet they will be the first to criticize their opponents based purely on a connection to (say) a corporation and profits rather than to any actual wrongdoing.
Critical thinking means you understand logical fallacies – you recognize them in someone else’s argument and you don’t rely on them in forming your own arguments. You’ll notice I didn’t criticize Kennedy because he is a lawyer with no knowledge of the science, or because he is (allegedly) opposed to big corporations. I attacked his data as being factually inaccurate. And if you want to criticize me you’re going to have to do the same.