Logical Fallacy Series: Ad Hominem

The Ad Hominem icon by The School of Thought is licensed under CC BY 2.0,

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Series Introduction

A logical fallacy is a flawed attempt at a logical argument. There are many different categories of logical fallacies and learning to recognize them is an indispensable part of anyone's critical thinking tool belt. Hardwired’s logical fallacy series is based on the work of The School of Thought, a non-profit providing free education resources on critical thinking, creative thinking, and philosophy. You can explore their awesome materials at yourlogicalfallacyis.com. I highly recommend ordering a deck of logical fallacy and cognitive bias cards. These are a great tool for sharpening your critical thinking skills and recognizing the biases that can skew your objectivity.

There is honestly no curriculum more important than how to think and most of us never learn this material in school. Sharpening our minds is as vital to our human potential as proper diet and exercise. It’s especially valuable to broader, societal health. Think of how much more we could learn from each other if our arguments had to stand on their own and our judgements were pointed only at fallacies in logic and reason, rather than at our perceived differences.

Critical thinking (that is, analyzing information objectively) takes practice. It may help to first write down what the actual argument is. Then look for and list evidence that both supports and contradicts the claim. Critical thinking requires that we explore all sides of an argument prior to drawing conclusions—and remember, there are often more than just two sides to an argument, despite how it might be framed in the media or by political theater. This can certainly be difficult, since as humans we’re predisposed to act on emotions and cognitive biases, recognizing patterns we’ve previously made conclusions about, and organizing our thoughts into bins as soon as we think them. Fear and emotions, in particular, are very instinctual reactions that may save us in fight or flight situations, but they can cause the parts of our brains responsible for logic and reason to be physically bypassed, at least until the event can be revisited objectively under calmer conditions.

Today's Logical Fallacy

The Ad Hominem card by The School of Thought is licensed under CC BY 2.0,

cropped from their PDF download

Literally translating to "to a person," ad hominem is one of the most commonly committed logical fallacies. Used frequently on cable news shows and in presidential debates, the ad hominem attack diverts attention from whatever argument was presented. Instead of thinking about the argument made, the audience (if not careful) is left wondering whether the person who made the argument can be trusted to give us information.

Two important points to realize are that even a liar can make a valid argument and even someone with the best of intentions can make an invalid argument.

Therefore, the person’s character or intention does not determine whether the argument itself is true or false. The argument must be considered on its own merits if one is to consider it objectively.

In the example given above, Sam’s claims about Sally have nothing to do with her arguments toward a more equitable taxation system. He is attacking her character and casting doubt about her honesty to the audience.

Sometimes these character attacks are more subtle or indirect, which can make them harder to spot.

For instance, if Sam had said that Sally’s argument “sounded too good to be true” or that she was “good at making promises,” these statements aren’t direct attacks on her character, but they do imply that she won’t be able to follow through, which casts doubt on her abilities in much the same way.

Be on the lookout for this and other logical fallacies. The more you recognize them, the more you won’t be able to ignore them!

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