Ad Hominem Ad Nauseam


A few weeks ago I discovered a nifty browser app called rbutr (pronounced ‘rebutter’), which notifies you if someone somewhere on the web has written a rebuttal to the article you are currently reading or if there’s an article that broadly presents opposing arguments, and provides you with a direct link to it.

According to its creators: rbutr aims to facilitate inter-website debate, guide users to rebuttals of dubious information, and indirectly influence our users so that they approach all online information with an increased level of skepticism and critical appraisal. rbutr’s ultimate goal is to provide an easy way out of the confirmation bias bubble we all subconsciously construct around ourselves, where we are only ever presented claims and beliefs with which we already agree.”

Anything that facilitates critical thinking and helps to negate confirmation bias is a good thing in my opinion, and so I think rbutr has potential to be a very useful tool. However, the quality and validity of the rebuttals you are presented with does depend on the individual who submitting the rebuttal’s understanding of what a valid rebuttal actually is.

A rebuttal is defined as: Evidence or argument made in response to an argument. A rebuttal is disproof, a refutation. It should generally take the form: you presented argument A with reason/evidence B, but here is my argument C with counter reason/evidence D.

Recently I was reading the Non-Government International Committee on Climate Change’s (NIPCC) latest report on the Heartland institute’s website and, for the first time since I installed it, rbutr blinked into life and notified me that a rebuttal to it had been submitted by a community member. I clicked on the link presented to me by rbutr and was taken to an article on entitled “Heartland Institute and its NIPCC report fail the credibility test“.

Attacking the arguer, not the argument

After reading the article I realised that it isn’t actually a rebuttal of any of the climate change arguments made in the NIPCC’s latest report, but rather an attempt to discredit the Heartland Institute and the NIPCC. Because of this I argue that it shouldn’t have been submitted to rbutr as a rebuttal, but on the plus side at least it gave me some practice in identifying rhetological fallacies, which are errors and manipulation of rhetoric (Language designed to have a persuasive or impressive effect on its audience) and logic. The first one I identified was a rhetological fallacy known as ‘circumstance ad hominem’, which is stating a claim (in this case the NIPCC’s report in its entirety) isn’t credible only because of the advocates’ interest in their claim. The author writes:

“Heartland’s funding over the past decade has included thousands of dollars directly from ExxonMobil and the American Petroleum Institute, but a large portion of their funding ($25.6 million) comes from the shadowy Donor’s Capital Fund, created expressly to conceal the identity of large donors to free-market causes. The Koch brothers appear to be funneling money into Donor’s Capital via their Knowledge and Progress Fund.”

Note the use of words ‘shadowy’ and ‘funneling’, which have negative connotations in this context, and have been deliberately used to persuade the reader that these are evil capitalist types who would happily rip out one of your kidneys and sell it given half a chance. This is the kind of manipulation of persuasive language that is often resorted to by someone who is trying to discredit someone else. It’s an attack on the person or the people, not the arguments themselves.

The facts pertaining to the funding of the Heartland Institute, if indeed they are facts, do not disprove any argument put forward in the NIPCC’s climate change report, which is precisely why this article can’t be called a rebuttal, but the author is using them to make the reader more inclined to dismiss or doubt the counter reason and evidence presented by the NIPCC’s report without first critically assessing it. He’s trying to convince the reader that it’s not worth even reading the NIPCC’s report because the guys that wrote it are shitbags. This is not the actions of someone who is genuinely interested in the truth, i.e. arriving at the most correct theory of climate change, but rather someone who simply wants to persuade others to believe what they believe.

The second rhetological fallacy I uncovered in the article is known as an appeal to popular belief, which is to claim something is true because most people (in this case ‘climate scientists’) believe it to be. The author tells us that:

“The IPCC is supported by hundreds of scientists, think tanks, and organizations around the world that assess and synthesize the most recent climate change-related science. The IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report (AR4), published in 2007, involved more than 500 Lead Authors and 2000 Expert Reviewers from more than one hundred participating nations. These authors and reviewers were all unpaid volunteers, and are required to identify and show consideration to theories that differ from conventional wisdom.”

Here the author is trying to impress the reader with big numbers. The fact that many more scientists are involved with the IPCC and that many more support its theory than do the NIPCC’s still does not disprove any argument put forward by the latter; no matter how much the author wishes it so. Nor does it prove the correctness of the IPCC’s theory of catastrophic man-made global warming and its predictions. Which theory fits the facts best is what decides which theory is true or has the highest truth value and the only way to know that is to critically examine the reason and evidence both theories are based on – something which the author has implored the reader not to do. Consensus, scientific or otherwise, is not proof of any given theory’s correctness, nor is it a substitute for it.

The author continues to assert that the Heartland Institute lacks credibility by claiming that: “The Heartland Institute has a long history of valuing the interests of its financial backers over the conclusions of experts. It has campaigned against the threats posed by second-hand smoke, acid rain, and ozone depletion, as well as the Endangered Species Act.”

The last resort: manipulating language to deceive

By placing one claim after the other the author is attempting to trick the reader into believing that there is some relationship between the two which doesn’t really exist, i.e. because the Heartland Institute values the interests of its financial backers over the conclusions of experts it has campaigned against the threats posed by…” Which is to imply that only evil capitalist types out to screw you would question the results and conclusions of government-funded science.

As evidence for the second claim several Heartland Institute articles are linked to. If you read these articles you’ll find that, contrary to the author’s assertion, the Heartland Institute does not go around flatly denying “settled science”, as the authors terms it, but rather critically assesses the results, conclusions and predictions made by government-funded scientific studies. How dare they! Surely cries the author, who it seems believes that all government-funded scientific study is immune to bias and conflict of interests. More importantly, and seemingly to the infuriation of the author, the Heartland Institute also dares to question the blind faith in using government action (i.e. regulations/legislation/laws) to (attempt to) solve complex social and environmental problems such as second-hand smoke and acid rain (remember that?).

When the author says the Heartland Institute “campaigns against the threats posed by second-hand smoke…”, what he really means is that they attempt to stop policy makers and politicians doing exactly what they want; which is always to impose new regulations, legislation or laws on people at the behest of the lobby or special interest group that is funding them or they wish to bribe votes out of. The author claims that the Heartland Institute values the interests of its financial backers over the conclusions of experts, but the same is true for politicians and always has been. As Economist and author Thomas Sowell once said:

“No one will really understand politics until they understand that politicians are not trying to solve our problems. They are trying to solve their own problems – of which getting elected and re-elected are number one and number two. Whatever is number three is far behind.”

The author also mentions that the Heartland Institute campaigned against the Endangered Species Act, clearly hoping the reader takes this to mean that the Institute is full of evil animal-hating bunny boilers. In fact the author should be glad that there are Institutions that campaign against such laws because the Endangered Species Act in the US is one of many examples of government action that has had the effect of making worse the problem it was trying to solve. As economics Professor Don Boudreaux explains in this video:

“The intention of the law is to preserve endangered species, a seemingly noble cause. As it turns out, the law severely restricts what property owners can do with land inhabited by endangered species. This in turn reduces the value of that land. As a result, the act gives landowners good reasons to quietly kill protected species they encounter on their land. This phenomenon is known as “shoot, shovel, and shut up. Giving landowners the incentive to kill animals clearly wasn’t the goal of the Endangered Species Act. It is an unintended, unforeseen consequence.”

Avoiding having to provide evidence is an admission of defeat

The author goes to great lengths to persuade the reader that, unlike the author himself and the IPCC, the people at the Heartland Institute are people who only care about profits and who are not interested in solving complex social and environmental problems for the benefit of society. The author wants the reader to draw the following conclusion: that the privately-funded NIPCC couldn’t possibly have a climate change theory that fits the facts better than the government-funded IPCC’s theory because the NIPCC is neither capable of it nor interested in producing such a thing; and so there’s no point in studying the NIPCC’s report because it would only be a waste of time.

In writing this article the author wished to convince the reader to dismiss the NIPCC’s climate change report without examining it in order to avoid having to provide a rebuttal. The question is why would someone, who claims to have the superior reason and evidence (the better science, if you will), and to be concerned only with arriving at the truth for the benefit of society, go to such lengths to avoid sharing it? Such behavior contradicts the author’s claimed intentions. The only explanation can be that in fact they don’t have superior reason and evidence, but want you to believe they do, and aren’t interested in the truth. Why would they want you to believe that they are right and you are wrong? So that, ultimately, you agree to do what they want you (and everyone else) to do – whatever that might be. In the case of climate change, it’s to willingly submit to having new government regulations, taxes, legislation and laws imposed on society all in the name of an irrational moral crusade known as saving the planet.

Attacking the person or the organisation instead of the argument, in other words avoiding providing a rebuttal, is an admission of defeat whether your opponent realises it or not.

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