Our History of Nasty Ad Hominem Attacks

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Earlier today a well-known critic of FAIR made the following statement on an Internet message board:

“MI/FAIR/FARMS has a history of nasty ad hominem attacks (see the Simon Southerton adultery accusations)…”

We at FAIR have been asking, for a long, long time, for concrete examples of where we have engaged in ad hominem fallacies, as we don’t really want to do so. (I know; that may seem incredulous to some. But it really is true.) This statement, by the critic on the message board, was the first concrete example I’ve noticed.

To start with, I do know that Southerton was excommunicated from the Church for adultery in 2005. It was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald (Australia) on July 21, 2005. (An archive copy of the article can be found online.) According to the article, it was Southerton who announced the allegation to the reporter. So the accusation is a matter of public record, placed into that record by Southerton himself.

Even so, the fact that he was charged with adultery could be used as an ad hominem fallacy if (and only if) it is presented as a reason to disregard the arguments of a person. Such a usage would be wrong, and definitely a logical fallacy. It plainly should not be done in scholarly discourse. Was this how FAIR and FARMS had used accusations of adultery—to get people to ignore things that Southeron said? Good question!

So I went searching.

First, I did a search on the FARMS/MI site for the phrase “Southerton adultery,” and it turns up exactly once—in a slide used by John Butler for Education Week in 2008. (It is a tag under the picture of Southerton and says, in part, “Excommunicated in 2005 for adultery.”)

Forgetting for a moment that John Butler doesn’t work for FARMS and that Education Week is not a FARMS venue, the phrase doesn’t come up anywhere else, and in any other publication. None.

I then did a search on FAIR’s websites for the same phrase, “Southerton adultery.” It appears exactly once, in one of our reviews of Rodney Meldrum’s material. It appears in both the short version (as just linked) and in the longer version, which is a PDF. It was used then to correct Meldrum, not to address anything that Southerton ever said.

I think that there are a few things to consider here. First, Southerton’s book contesting the historicity of the Book of Mormon was published in 2004, and the arguments that Southerton made have been discussed long and hard in many venues. Both of the “search hits” on the FAIR and FARMS websites were for singular statements made in 2008, four years later and, honestly, after the intensity of the discussion regarding Southerton’s arguments. One of the mentions wasn’t even directed at Southerton, at all.

Which still leaves me puzzled. Where do the “Simon Southerton adultery accusations” (as our critic states them) get hung around the necks of FAIR and FARMS? Perhaps someone with more in-depth searching skills can point out where there are any ad hominem statements (constituting an ad hominem fallacy) in this regard. I, for one, would welcome someone pointing them out.

In fact, going back to my statement earlier in this post, we at FAIR have been asking, for a long, long, LONG time, for concrete examples of all the meanness attributed to us, as an organization. Understanding that it is possible to not see the forest for the trees, please consider this an open, standing invitation. If anyone can point them out to us, I’d be glad to make sure someone takes a look at what is brought up.

19 thoughts on “Our History of Nasty Ad Hominem Attacks

  1. netzach

    As a psychologist, I make a pretty good programmer, knowwhatimean? That said, I wonder if there is not some projection going on here – our critics projecting onto us what they know they are guilty of themselves?

  2. JV

    Hi. I’ve thought for years, particularly given my interactions with FAIR contributors Greg Smith and David Keller, that FAIR was supportive of argumentum ad hominem and well-poisoning, as an apologetic tactic.

    For the past four years, FAIR Wiki has hosted an entry for inaccurate LDS art (HERE), which was specifically recognized and praised on this blog in 2008 (HERE), that uses ad hominem liberally.

    Here are each of the ad hominem assertions, proffered to counter the arguments of all “critics” of historically inaccurate LDS art:

    1) “The critics are not anxious to ‘reveal the truth’…”
    2) “…critics don’t seem worried about historical accuracy…”
    3) “Perhaps what critics want above all is to make the translation alienating.”
    4) “[The critics] may want it to seem bizarre, even eerie.”
    5) “[The critics] may hope that a historical truth in visual form will allow them to slip a bigger lie by us.”
    6) “It seems like [the critics] want a portrait of the translation that will convey…that the Book of Mormon was uninspired and uninspiring.”

    Almost immediately after publication of that entry I told Greg Smith, in an online conversation that also included David Keller, that the above assertions were argumentum ad hominem, and should be retracted. Greg told me that to the extent that he used any ad hominem argumentation in that article (which he denied), it wasn’t fallacious. Then he expressed his support for the use of ad hominem under certain circumstances (outside of discussions relying purely on formal logic or “replicable experiments” in the scientific process). I took that to mean that Greg has no problem with personal attacks and well-poisoning in general.

    Are you saying Greg Smith’s view of argumentum ad hominem doesn’t reflect the views of FAIR? If not, why does FAIR host his FAIR Wiki article?

    -JV

  3. Mike Parker

    JV:

    Your examples are not ad hominem fallacies. It is not ad hominem to investigate or even state what one believes one’s opponents’ motivations and prejudices are.

    For example, it would not be ad hominem to write a paper that attempted to explain Timothy McVeigh’s motivations for setting off the bomb that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. To claim that McVeigh was “angry”, “disconnected”, or even “a sociopath” is not ad hominem—it goes directly to the main issue of motivation.

    It would be ad hominem to say, for example, “President Barack Obama’s views on women’s health don’t matter because he’s a man,” or “Of course Mitt Romney opposes a woman’s right to choose; he’s a Mormon.”

    To your point, it would be ad hominem if FAIR was claiming, “Jerald and Sandra Tanner’s writings can be ignored; after all, they’re anti-Mormons.”

    Again, ad hominem goes after the character or other irrelevant personal qualities of the opposition in an attempt to distract from their arguments. It is not an example of ad hominem to claim that a critic is not being truthful, not being accurate, or even to speculate on their possible motivations.

    http://www.fallacyfiles.org/adhomine.html

  4. JV

    Mike,

    The link you provided identifies the form of ad hominem fallacy used in the arguments I listed above:

    Circumstantial: A Circumstantial Ad Hominem is one in which some irrelevant personal circumstance surrounding the opponent is offered as evidence against the opponent’s position. This fallacy is often introduced by phrases such as: “Of course, that’s what you’d expect him to say.” The fallacy claims that the only reason why he argues as he does is because of personal circumstances, such as standing to gain from the argument’s acceptance.

    This form of the fallacy needs to be distinguished from criticisms directed at testimony, which are not fallacious, since pointing out that someone stands to gain from testifying a certain way would tend to cast doubt upon that testimony. For instance, when a celebrity endorses a product, it is usually in return for money, which lowers the evidentiary value of such an endorsement—often to nothing! In contrast, the fact that an arguer may gain in some way from an argument’s acceptance does not affect the evidentiary value of the argument, for arguments can and do stand or fall on their own merits.

    Everyone has personal motivations for making arguments. Those motivations alone are not relevant to the substance of the arguments that person makes, for “arguments can and do stand or fall on their own merits.”

    The merits (i.e., the “rights” and the “wrongs”) of the LDS Church choosing to use (as it does, exclusively) historically inaccurate art to inform the world about the BoM translation process are not affected by the motivations that bring critics to the discussion. The motivations, faithfulness, righteousness, race, ethnicity, or other personal circumstances of any participants in the discussion are irrelevant to the merits.

    The arguments I listed above amount to saying “Of course he would object to that, he’s…

    — a critic.”
    — not worried about historical accuracy.”
    — wants, above all, to make the translation alienating.”
    — wants the translation process to seem bizarre, even eerie.”
    — hopes that a historical truth in visual form will allow him to slip a bigger lie by us.”
    — he is a liar.” (see immediately above)
    — he wants a portrait of the translation that will convey that the Book of Mormon was uninspired and uninspiring.”

    Any of these, as counterarguments, are fallacious attacks on the person making the argument, not the argument itself.

    -JV

  5. Mike Parker

    JV wrote:

    Any of these, as counterarguments, are fallacious attacks on the person making the argument, not the argument itself.

    They could possibly be if those were the only, or even primary, argument being employed. If the sum and substance of the artwork article about which you are concerned was “only people who want to tear down the Church care about this, and they’re liars,” then you might have a point.

    However, the article in question contains much more than that, and makes, as its primary argument, the point that art is rarely about photorealism and usually more about ideas and symbolism. Possible motivations of critics are discussed, but they are not the primary focus. Your selective quotation removes them from context and makes them appear to be something they are not.

    A fair reading of the entire will bear this out, and I encourage anyone here to do so.

  6. Mike Parker

    JV:

    FYI, I brought your comments to the attention of the wiki editor. He removed and rewrote all the passages you mentioned. Even though they’re not strictly ad hominem, we are interested in removing instances of “snark”.

  7. JV

    Mike wrote:

    They could possibly be if those were the only, or even primary, argument being employed. If the sum and substance of the artwork article about which you are concerned was “only people who want to tear down the Church care about this, and they’re liars,” then you might have a point.

    However, the article in question contains much more than that, and makes, as its primary argument, the point that art is rarely about photorealism and usually more about ideas and symbolism. Possible motivations of critics are discussed, but they are not the primary focus. Your selective quotation removes them from context and makes them appear to be something they are not.

    So, the primary focus of the article, which is not an ad hominem argument, negates or excuses the use of ad hominem as a secondary argument? My point in posting here wasn’t to say that the primary focus of the article was ad hominem, it was to respond to a call for concrete instances of ad hominem. This is one, regardless of what part of the argument it represents.

    Allen Wyatt wrote:

    We at FAIR have been asking, for a long, long time, for concrete examples of where we have engaged in ad hominem fallacies, as we don’t really want to do so. (I know; that may seem incredulous to some. But it really is true.)

    After being presented with an example of an article that employs argumentum ad hominem, FAIR defends the fallacy because it wasn’t the primary focus of the article. I think I understand now why incredulity was an expected response.

    To be consistent with your stated ideals (and to reduce the incredulity of your audience), why not just apologize for employing ad hominem in that article and retract the portion that crossed the line?

    -JV

  8. JV

    Mike,

    Sorry, I didn’t see your last message before posting my last one. I’m not clear on the difference between what you call “snark” and ad hominem attacks or well-poisoning, but I do appreciate FAIR retracting the arguments. The new language, by doing away with the attacks, makes a better point, imo. Thanks.

    -JV

  9. mormography

    Allen Wyatt,

    To be clear, you did not deny that the highly unusually charges against a lapse Mormon following his publication of academic analysis upsetting to Mormon leadership constituted an ad hominem attack. You only denied attribution of the charges to FAIR/FARMS.

  10. Allen Wyatt Post author

    Mormography,

    I don’t understand your point. Charges were leveled against FAIR and FARMS. Very specific charges. I looked into those and found that they were not accurate. I reported on that finding.

    If you know of specific cases where FAIR has engaged in ad hominem argumentation, please let us know.

  11. mormography

    Allen Wyatt – To be clear, you do not deny that the very specific charges you reference are indeed ad hominem attacks. You only deny attribution of the charges to FAIR/FARMS.

  12. Allen Wyatt Post author

    Mormography,

    You are partially correct. FAIR/FARMS are not responsible for the charges, nor did FAIR/FARMS use those charges in a way that could be labeled ad hominem argumentation.

    However, to say that the original charge (adultery) is an ad hominem attack is incorrect. A charge MAY be used as an ad hominem attack or it may not be. The determination is not in the charge, but in the use of the charge. If it is used in a way that says “don’t listen to what this guy says because of this charge,” then it is a case of ad hominem argumentation, provided the charge has no relationship to what the guy is saying. That is the ONLY time in which the usage rises to ad hominem argumentation. (See the link provided in my original post for more information.)

    Just because something is (a) personal, (b) unpleasant, or (c) “mean,” that doesn’t make it ad hominem argumentation.

  13. mormography

    Thank you for the clarification. The post creates confusion when it declares an unspecified but well-known critic has indeed provided a concrete example and then further legitimizes the concrete example by looking for it. If it was not an example of ad hominem, why even look for it? Your clarification now seems to indicate that the “concrete example” and “specific charges” were not really specific or concrete, but vague possibilities. In that clarification it is understandable why someone would then go looking for the instances to investigate further.

    One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist. In like fashion one man’s motive investigation (assuming you agree with Mike Parker) is another’s ad hominem attack. In this light it is difficult to take your invitation sincerely being that you will merely declare labeling someone anti-Mormon as an investigation of motives as oppose to a label designed to inform the choir that the argument is not to given importance because of the bearer’s label.

    I am not convinced that Southerton has introduced to the public record that he was excommunicated for adultery. The link you provided does not directly attribute this to Southerton. According to Southerton he was accused of adultery, but lacking evidence he was excommunicated for an “inappropriate relationship” and in another email to the press he declared the reason to be for being too vocal.

    As I read the Wikipedia article regarding Ad Hominem, “but can also involve pointing out true character flaws or actions that are irrelevant to the opponent’s argument.” You failed to mention how Southerton adultery allegations are at all germane to his arguments.

    I would be interested to know if you insist the following is not ad hominem what you would consider it. Surely this is a fallacy of some sort:

    [Speaking to an audience largely composed opposed to wearing blueshirts]

    [basis investigation] Mr. S has disagreed with believe B since YYYY.

    [irrelevant detail appealing to audience] Mr. S wore a blueshirt once.

    [discussion of arugement] Mr. S concludes believe B is in error because of evidence E, but his conclusion has flaw F.

  14. Allen Wyatt Post author

    Mormography said: In this light it is difficult to take your invitation sincerely being that you will merely declare labeling someone anti-Mormon as an investigation of motives as oppose to a label designed to inform the choir that the argument is not to given importance because of the bearer’s label.

    Overlooking the fact that you seem confident in declaring what I will do without really knowing me, I’ll point out that (1) motive is germane in any marketplace of ideas, (2) the truth or untruth of Southerton’s adultery isn’t related to his DNA ideas or his motives, and (3) I’ve never labeled Southerton anti-Mormon. I have labeled him a critic of LDS truth claims, but such a label seems self-evident, no?

    Mormography said: I am not convinced that Southerton has introduced to the public record that he was excommunicated for adultery. The link you provided does not directly attribute this to Southerton.

    I did not say this in the original post. I said that “it was Southerton who announced the allegation to the reporter.” And it was. Southerton said he was charged with adultery, and the reporter never would have had knowledge that he was charged with adultery unless Southerton stated it. (The statement certainly wouldn’t have come from the other participants in the disciplinary council.)

    Mormography said: You failed to mention how Southerton adultery allegations are at all germane to his arguments.

    As I mentioned, they aren’t germane to his arguments. Period. That is why (I believe) FAIR/FARMS never brought them up relative to Southerton’s DNA arguments. Yet, if one (such as the person quoted in the original post) says that FAIR/FARMS has done that, then it is worth pointing out that no, we actually have not done that.

  15. mormography

    Your originally post is fantastically confusing. You say you know that Southerton was excommunicated for adultery and base this on what Southerton has introduced into the public record. How then do you know Southerton was excommunicated for adultery if his public record denies this?

    To make sure I understand, you believe Butler indeed engaged in ad hominem but Southerton’s Stake President did not? Are you distancing Butler from MI/FAIR/FARMS? Is the disconnect in the definition of MI/FAIR/FARMS? Major content sources are not to be included in MI/FAIR/FARMS?

    It seems we both agree that legitimate basis investigation is relevant. For what it is worth, describing Southerton has a self declared apostate since 1998 would be perfectly legitimate in basis investigation and it is not necessary to soften to critic alone. However, would not labeling someone like Grant Palmer anti-Mormon be a from of ad hominem attack (can’t attack the argument therefore attack the man)?

  16. Mike Parker

    mormography:

    However, would not labeling someone like Grant Palmer anti-Mormon be a from of ad hominem attack (can’t attack the argument therefore attack the man)?

    Referring to someone as “anti-Mormon” is only an ad hominem fallacy if it’s being used as the only response to them, e.g.:

    “Grant Palmer? Don’t believe anything he says; he’s an anti-Mormon.”

    I don’t know anywhere in anything published by FAIR or the Maxwell Institute where this approach has been used. Quite the contrary, pages and pages have been written examining Palmer’s assertions and arguing why they are wrong.

    http://en.fairmormon.org/Criticism_of_Mormonism/Books/An_Insider%27s_View_of_Mormon_Origins

    http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/review/?vol=15&num=2&id=511

    http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/review/?vol=16&num=1&id=533

    http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/review/?vol=15&num=2&id=510

    Referring to Grant Palmer as an “anti-Mormon,” in and of itself, is not ad homimem; it is an accurate description of him as an individual who has spoken and published extensively on his opposition to Mormon beliefs and teachings.

    Being in opposition to Mormon beliefs, he is therefore “anti-Mormon,” just as my vocal opposition to eating asparagus makes me “anti-asparagus” and Mitt Romney’s vocal opposition to Barack Obama makes him “anti-Obama.”

    If you happen to take that pejoratively, then that’s your problem.

  17. mormography

    FAIR has published extensively on their opposition to traditional Mormon truth claims. Just one example recently on this blog for example http://www.fairblog.org/2012/05/21/if-lamanites-were-black-why-didnt-anyone-notice/

    So according to your definition FAIR is anti-Mormon, if you are to be consistent. Or is the truth that your definition of anti-Mormon is anyone whose arguments you are incapable of formulating an effective retort to without reinventing Mormon truth claims?

    It appears this post is not legitimately a matter of a genuine invitation for criticism, but rather a means to redefine a word and ease a guilty conscious. That is you reject Wikipedia, dictionary.com, and the vast majority of native English speakers in the way the word ad hominem is defined. Now that your insincerity has been proven I am done.

  18. Mike Parker

    There is a VAST difference between, on the one hand, suggesting a different interpretation of a culturally-driven assumption about the Book of Mormon and, on the other, publishing a lengthy treatise on why Joseph Smith really didn’t talk to angels and translate from gold plates but instead made the whole thing up.

    That you apparently can’t see the difference speaks volumes.

    Grant Palmer publicly and repeatedly denies the entire orgin claims of Mormonism. If that’s not “anti-Mormon,” then I don’t know what is.

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