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Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Logical fallacies and the environment: Ad Hominem

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As instructors we’re supposed to instill in our students critical thinking abilities. So this semester I included in my Environmental Issues class a review of some common logical fallacies with examples taken from the environmental scene. Much to my surprise, I couldn’t find such a collection through a Google search. So I started crafting my own by collecting examples of logical fallacies that occur in environmental news and discussions.

This week: the oh-so-common ad hominem attacks.

heartlandbillboardAs a logical fallacy, an ad hominem point is simple: distract from the proposition by focussing on the source. It is a successful tactic when the listener, convinced that the source is not trustworthy, ignores the content. It may be one of the most common tactics used in divisive debates. The billboard above (which quickly became an embarassment to its sponsor, the Heartland Institute), for instance, implies that since the Unabomber believes in global warming, anyone else who does must be equally bad and untrustworthy.

A common error is to assume that something is wrong because of who said it. “What else would you expect from David Suzuki/the Fraser Institute/Al Gore/Ezra Levant, etc”. This has a lot to do with how we filter information based on the source, because we ascribe a motive to the source.

Suzuki and Al Gore: hypocrites?

Suzuki and Al Gore: hypocrites?

People used to look at comments from Andrew Weaver differently from now. Weaver, then a climatologist from the University of Victoria, was on the IPCC (the International Panel on Climate Change) and, as Nobelist, was often called upon to comment on climate. His views were taken as that of a scientist. But a different perception applies to his comments now that he is a political leader (of BC’s Green Party). It is harder to take a politician’s statement at face value because we have a tendency to look for the unsaid political strategy.

A few years ago I asked students to analyze public comments on a CBC new release from the David Suzuki organisation (about the “dirty dozen” toxics common in consumer goods). Suzuki is a polarizing figure and a good half of the comments were ad hominem attacks. Here’s what Suzuki himself had to say about ad hominems:

From government scientists to First Nations citizens and environmentalists, pretty much everyone working to protect the air, water, land and diversity of plants and animals that keep us alive and healthy has felt the sting of attacks from sources in government, media and beyond. Much of the media spin is particularly absurd, relying on ad hominem attacks (focusing on perceived character flaws to deflect attention from or invalidate arguments) that paint people who care about the world as greedy conspirators bent on personal enrichment or even world domination!

But Suzuki has himself been charged with using ad hominems; for instance, here’s an excerpt from economics professor Cornelis van Kooten:

Suzuki employs another familiar tactic, namely, ad hominem attacks on scientists. Suzuki and others like him are unable to refute the scientific arguments made by serious scientists, such as Roy Spencer, Ross McKitrick and others, so they attack their beliefs and associations. Clearly, the scientific findings of such folks cannot be trusted according to Suzuki; by appealing to his readers’ emotions and prejudices rather than their ability to think, Suzuki is telling the reader he considers them incompetent to judge scientific matters.

What nonsense! Ideologues such as David Suzuki have likely never read the scientific case made in numerous peer-reviewed articles by McKitrick, Spencer and others whom he labels ‘deniers.’ Yet, these few scientists have almost single handedly wreaked havoc on the well-funded science underlying the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports.

How is one to tell claims apart, in this context? Good information is key, but few of us have time to do the full research on any specific piece of news. This is where trust in a given source becomes important. Unfortunately, unexamined trust may lead to a simplistic “with us or against us” black and white view of the world; emotions and loyalties then supersede logic.

But there are clues in the above excerpt by van Kooten that help to determine trustworthiness. Most readers may not have heard of McKitrick or Spencer. A quick search may show their work, as well as commentary on their work. Since the common public is, by definition, not a specialist, it is the latter that may be more useful. Some organisations (Skeptical Science, DeSmogBlog, for instance) track environmental claims and scientists and assess their credibility. The two sites named here are credible (unless you are into conspiracy theories, which imply that everyone lies and that no source could ever be trusted).

For the record: the claims of McKitrick and Spencer have been thoroughly debunked. But also, the last sentence of the excerpt from van Kooten holds another clue: the statement “the well-funded science underlying the IPCC”. This is inserted as an attempt to besmirch and sow doubt, by implying that the panelists are in it for the funding, not for the science. But this veers into conspiracy theory territory: it means that scientists across the world, working in governments as well as universities and independent research centers, are all in on the lie. This is highly improbable, to quote Star Trek’s Spock. May-6-2013-Hitler

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Written by enviropaul

February 15, 2016 at 3:28 pm

One Response

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  1. […] Note: As instructors we’re supposed to instill in our students critical thinking abilities. So this semester I included in my Environmental Issues class a review of some common logical fallacies with examples taken from the environmental scene. Much to my surprise, I couldn’t find such a collection through a Google search. So I started crafting my own by collecting examples of logical fallacies that occur in environmental news and discussions.  Previous posts in the series: either-or; ad hominem. […]


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