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July 28, 2005

Herbs and insults

So yeah, as expected, every time someone looks seriously at echinacea's efficacy in boosting the immune system, it turns out not to. And too bad for the wild populations of that plant pushed to extinction by demand for something that doesn't really work.

The same went for ginkgo a few years back, but at least ginkgo is already extinct in the wild, and all of it on the market is thus harvested sustainably from cultivated plants. No real environmental harm done there.

And a lot of echinacea tea is harvested sustainably too. I like the way the stuff tastes, so I'm not going to begrudge anyone who continues to drink it. The placebo effect is powerful, and drinking hot water is a good idea when you've got a cold, so like Bubbeh said about the chicken soup, it couldn't hoit. Rant over: enjoy your coneflower tea.

But the above-linked story brought to mind another pet peeve, this one more or less specific to the internets. The typical exchange goes like this:

A: "These studies are only part of the big conspiracy against herbal medicine by the American Medical Association to keep their profits up."

B: "You, sir, are a moron."

A: "Oh! Now we see the violence inherent in the system! You can't counter my devastating argument, so you resort to ad hominems!"

I hate that for two reasons.

1) Argumentum ad hominem does not mean "insult."

2) Ad hominem arguments might be against the law in a debating society, but they are utterly necessary in real life.

An ad hom consists of pointing out the character, standing, or previous statements or actions of the person making the statement being countered.

In other words, it's A using the ad hominem argument in the above exchange, not B.

In the ideal world of the debate team, this is rightly regarded as a fallacy, if for no other reason than that the practice of formal debate includes regularly arguing positions you do not personally agree with.

But in real life, refusing to measure statements against the person making them can lead to fatal errors. Example: the Bush administration argues a case against Iran, or Syria, or wherever it is we invade next. We counter: "Bush says Iran is actively supporting extremism, but he lied about Hussein and 9/11, and about WMDs, and about this and that, so how can we believe him now?"

That's an ad hominem argument. It's also entirely correct. The ad hominem argument, in fact, is the basis of all critical thinking.

In the echinacea story linked above, the study was criticized by industry reps Mark Blumenthal of the American Botanical Council and Michael McGuffin, president of the American Herbal Products Association. Among McGuffin's statements:

“It may be that the only fair and useful conclusion from this study is that consumers choose a reputable brand of Echinacea and use it at the right dose.”

One would be a fool to discount the jobs these men hold when analyzing the veracity of their claims. They represent an industry that stands to lose millions of dollars if the study's results are generally accepted.

Handy reminder: Calling Blumenthal and McGuffin "industry flaks" is not an ad hominem: it's an insult. Saying that they're not worthy of our trust because they're industry flaks is an ad hominem.

And in this case, both the insult and the ad hominem are completely justified.

Posted by Chris Clarke at July 28, 2005 10:12 AM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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"Oh, if I went 'round sayin' I was Emperor just because some moistened bint lobbed a scimitar at me, they'd put me away."

You can't wave Monty Python around like that and not expect someone to get hurt.

Posted by: Allison at July 28, 2005 06:20 PM
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Nit to pick: I disagree with your point 2 above. Ad hom arguments are never necessary, not in real life or anything else. What you're describing is not ad hom, it's a credibility argument, and is totally legitimate in both formal debate and real life. The difference is fine; saying "Of course science doesn't accept the effectiveness of herbal treatments, they'd lose millions!" is poisoning the well, which is classic ad hom, but saying "I don't trust the scientific method because I believe it's impossible for scientists to be sufficiently impartial" isn't a logical fallacy at all. (It's dumb and wrong, but amazingly, being dumb and wrong isn't a fallacy.) For the same reasons, "Saying that they're not worthy of our trust because they're industry flaks" is not ad hominem, as long as you specify that the industry they're flakking for is directly relevant to the matter at hand.

Posted by: Kathryn at July 28, 2005 06:25 PM
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I'd hardly call that a "nit," Kathryn.

I think I might agree with you. Let me think it over in the desert this weekend.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at July 28, 2005 06:30 PM
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Chris, I called it a "nit" because it's not really relevant to your main point, which is that insults are not ad hominem, and that those who could use a science lesson could often also use a logic lesson. I'd be tickled to hear what else you have to say on the topic.

Posted by: Kathryn at July 28, 2005 07:39 PM
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Well. Insults are always insults. Sometimes they're ad homs.

There's a fuzzy line here. If a person insults someone else and then goes on to respond substantially to their main point, they're using the insult as a blunt weapon to add weight to thier other arguments. So it might be considered an ad hominem, if weak.

On the other hand, flat out ridicule is definitely not ad hominem. I think it's best to draw a clear line between ridicule and argument so that the discussion might remain productive. If you really want your opponent to respond to a point, salting your post with insults won't help at all. (If you really want to voice your utter disgust at the moral depravity or utter confusion of your opponent, it can be done neutrally.) But showing off your rapier-sharp wit in order to thoroughly caricature your opponent (as long as you realize it's not valid debate) is a pefectly good sport.

Posted by: pdf23ds at July 28, 2005 08:31 PM
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Next time you have a bad tooth or, perhaps, gum problems, put some Echinacea extract on it for the pain and cure. This herb is for bacterial inflections. That is it's healing power.

Posted by: Jo at August 1, 2005 06:10 AM
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