It’s a Matter of Relevance

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Like many others, I have been watching events unfold at NAMI and have been somewhat perplexed by the various narratives that have arisen in regards to it.    I have my opinions about who is right and who is wrong (where such terms can even be said to be appropriate in such a context) but they are not relevant, or even important, to anyone but me.

I have, however, been fascinated by one of the narratives that has come forth, that being that one of the reasons that Peterson, Hamblin, Midgley, Smith, et. al., have been let go is because they have regularly engaged in vicious “ad hominem” attacks against the various people whose works they reviewed.  Of course, the charge is nothing new.  For years, critics of NAMI (and before that FARMS) have claimed that these people engage in rampant ad hominem attacks.  I must admit, therefore, that I found it somewhat amusing when Mr. John Dehlin, of Mormon Stories fame, posted a request on his Facebook page for examples of ad hominem attacks coming from NAMI.  See  http://www.facebook.com/johndehlin.  It is also quite instructive that, as of this writing, not single response of the 48+ responses that has been posted, has actually identified a single instance of an actual ad hominem attack.  One would assume that if such tactics were as common as critics often claim then such examples should be readily forthcoming.  I suspect that that the reason that such examples are not more ubiquitous is because many critics have confused sarcasm and irony for ad hominem when, in fact, they are not the same.

Nevertheless, I suspect that a sustained search of the thousands of pages of apologetic writings, both in print and on the internet, will probably turn up some example or another of an ad hominem attack.   The question is, however, is an ad hominem attack always, and for all purposes, illegitimate?  Personally, I think not.  It is, as the title of my post suggests, a question of relevance.

Relevancy, as the word suggests, is not an inherent characteristic of any piece of evidence but exists as a “relation between an item of evidence and a proposition sought to be proved.”  See George F. James, “Relevancy, Probability and the Law,” 29 Cal. L. Rev. 689, 690-91 (1941).  If a piece of evidence tends to prove (or disprove) the proposition for which it is put forth then it must needs be relevant.

As I read some of the posts in response to Mr. Dehlin’s request, two names were often given up as examples (1) Martha Beck; and (2) Grant Palmer.   I am an attorney by profession and my thinking and approach to various subjects is informed by my education and experience in that profession.  Based on that, I have to say that I find these two examples to be particularly poor examples to flaunt as proof positive of the apologist’s “ad hominem” approach.

Take, for example, Marth Beck.  Ms. Beck is the daughter of Hugh Nibley, one of the most respected LDS scholars of the past century and the man whom many would perceive as the father of modern LDS apologetics.   Without recounting the whole sordid mess, Ms. Beck wrote a book in which she made some extremely serious allegations of sexual misconduct on the part of her father towards her.  As can be imagined, LDS response was swift and, I’m sure Ms. Beck felt, quite personal.  The question is, however, was the response appropriate?  Was it appropriate to look at Ms. Beck’s personal history, character and reputation?  My reply is, How could it have been otherwise?

You see, the problem with Ms. Beck’s allegations was that they were totally unsupported by any other “evidence” which could be considered.   Therefore, she made her history and character a legitimate source of inquiry by her own allegations.  She wanted her readers to take her word for the veracity of what she claimed occurred, but how can we, as her reader, do so when we know nothing about her?  In other words, her character was “relevant” to the very case that she was making.   Your character, while not definitive, is relevant to resolving probabilities of guilty.   Thus, when many of the claims that Ms. Beck made were shown to be demonstrably false, and when her siblings came forward to directly contradict her account, her reputation for veracity became subject to examination.  Moreover, would anyone really want it any other way?  Just ask anyone who has ever been unjustly accused of a heinous crime such as sexual abuse and see if they don’t want their accuser’s reputation for honesty and integrity fully vetted.   Of course, this does not mean that a serial liar cannot also be the victim of abuse; it simply means that the liar’s testimony is going to come under additional scrutiny because it seems axiomatic that the more of a penchant a person has for shading the truth, the more likely their testimony is false.

Fortunately for all of us, allegations such as those made by Ms. Beck are rare.  That brings us to the second example that was posted on Dehlin’s board, that being the case of Grant Palmer.  At the time he published his book, An Insider’s View to Mormon Origins, several essays were published which took a searching look at Mr. Palmer’s career in CES and were highly critical of his time there.  Many people took offense to this penetrating look at the person of Mr. Palmer.  The question is, again, was this appropriate?  Or, better stated, was it “relevant”?  Again, I have a problem seeing how it could not be.

As Dr. Midgley pointed out in is review at the time, both Mr. Palmer and his publisher, made much of his “insider” status.  Why?  Obviously, because it lent a sense of credibility and expertise to the argument that he made.  If a person sets himself out as an expert in some field of endeavor, his claim to expertise is, by definition, relevant.  In a legal setting, when either side calls an expert witness, the very first thing that happens before the “expert” is allowed to present any material testimony regarding the actual facts of the case, is a vetting of his alleged experience and expertise.   Why?  Because the expert is about to present evidence to jury which he wants them to accept.  It is the jury’s job to weight that evidence and make an informed decision.  The expert’s actual level of expertise is, therefore, relevant to the case being made.

Palmer claimed, at the beginning of his book, that “for thirty-four years I was primarily an Institute director for the Church Educational System (CES)” (p. vii).  Palmer raised this issue, not his reviewers, and he used this claim to establish his credibility.  Midgley then described what he learned, with Palmer’s help:

“Palmer began his CES career teaching at the Church College of New Zealand, which is the Latter-day Saint high school in Templeview (1967—70). He was hired to teach British Empire history but was eventually shifted to teaching religion classes. For health reasons, he did not complete his four-year contract. Palmer was then made the CES coordinator, his official title, for the Whittier Stake in California (1970—73), where he also taught some college-age students at Rio Hondo Jr. College and Whittier College. He then worked one year on a Ph.D. at Brigham Young University before being again assigned as CES coordinator for the Chico Stake (1975—80), where he also taught college-age students at Butte College in Oroville, California. These assignments, where he was the sole CES employee, came at the beginning of his career. He had nothing to do with LDS Institutes of Religion, as that label is commonly understood, for the last two decades of his CES career. Why? In 1980 he relocated to the Salt Lake Valley, where he taught seminary first at East High School (1980—81) and then at Brighton High School (1981—87). He ended his CES career not teaching but counseling in a jail. What the word “primarily” means is that for nine of the thirty-four years of his CES career, while supervising local seminary teachers, he was also an institute “director.” Even if one were inclined to count his counseling work at a jail as being an institute director, which I am not willing to do, his career seems to have taken a downward spiral, but neither this fact nor any of the reasons for it is mentioned by Palmer or in the Signature hype for An Insider’s View.

I realize that some will complain that, by probing Palmer’s background (or beliefs), I offer a diversion from the issues he raises and that what I have presented is an ad hominem attack. This is nonsense. Palmer and his publisher have made his CES career an issue.[1]

And so, it turns out that Palmer misleads his audience about his CES role and experience.  How can this not be relevant?  He raised the issue, and used it to strengthen his argument, and augment his own authority.  Those who disagree must be allowed to demonstrate that the claim is misleading.  Do the critics think it right for Palmer to get away with being deceptive?  If not, how can that be remedied if reviewers cannot point out the facts—facts which Midgley acquired with Palmer’s assistance?

Why is this relevant?  Perhaps another example, more removed LDS apologetics, can enlighten.  The PBS program Frontline recently ran a program dealing with forensic evidence and its uses in criminal trials.  A part of that program included an examination of forensic credentialing and the American College of Forensic Examiners International (ACFEI). It investigates whether certification can aid in a person’s ability to testify as an expert witness in court — and whether certain types of certification are acceptably rigorous for this role in the legal system.  In short, it turns out that ACFEI is little more than a diploma mill (you can read the report for yourself here: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/criminal-justice/real-csi/dr-cyril-wecht-the-benefits-of-forensic-credentialing/).    Do you think a jury would not be interested in this fact? Would it not affect their deliberations?  At the very least, doesn’t it affect the weight given to the evidence presented?   Dozens, if not hundreds, of people were sent to jail (and in some cases received the death penalty) based at least in part on the testimony of the “experts” certified by this organization.  It would seem that the relevancy of the education and training of the person providing the testimony should be quite clear.  Moreover, how should this not apply in a scholarly context?

For example, if a critic of the Book of Abraham has no formal training in Egyptology, is that not relevant to the weight given to his conclusions?  If a critic of the Book of the Mormon who criticizes the Mesoamerican aspects to the book’s claims has no formal training in Mesoamerican studies, is that not relevant?   Interestingly, one of the most prevalent ad hominem attacks that I have seen come in this context, when critics dismiss the work of trained experts such as John Clark, Brant Gardner, and John Gee because “they are Mormon.”   It is a classic example of the ad hominem fallacy of trying to get people to ignore the actual argument due to a perceived flaw in the person who made the argument.  This is not to say that amateurs cannot and do not present reasoned arguments that must be dealt with.  In my profession, there are many people who believe they are every bit as capable of defending themselves as a trained attorney.[2]  Nevertheless, most people prefer to hire a person who has the training and field work.

Another example comes to mind: In his biography of Joseph Smith, author Dan Vogel employed Family System Theory in an attempt to understand the Mormon Prophet.  Nevertheless, Mr. Vogel is not a trained psychologist, psychiatrist or even a Licensed Clinical Social Worker.  How is that information not relevant?  And the corresponding review by NAMI employed a response from people with the relevant training who provided what I thought were materially damaging responses to the argument’s Vogel made.

My whole point here is that, in many instances, an examination of the person making the argument is appropriate.  It gives us a basis for weighing and measuring the argument being made as well as understanding the context in which the argument is made.  That is not ad hominem.

Non-LDS scholars have long realized these facts.  If (say) Vogel were to present a logical syllogism, it makes little difference whether he is trained in Family System Theory or anything else.  All that matters is the syllogism.  Unfortunately, most issues with scripture, ancient langauges, history, and all the other topics that impact “apologetics” aren’t like mathematical or logical syllogisms. One historian noted that these issues sometimes need to come to the fore if we care about the truth, even though people will get upset:

Except with very good friends, it is considered tactless and discourteous to suggest that someone’s views are a reflection of his or her background, prejudices, or psychic needs.  We stick to the reasoned arguments advanced, even if privately we think those arguments are shallow rationalizations.  The need to behave this was in scholarly discussion is obvious, as are the costs of violating the rule.  But if, as historians of an ongoing discussion, we believe that the protagonists are in fact often disingenuous in their arguments, are following hidden agendas, and are expressing  views shaped by ‘extra rational’ factors, what kind of historians would we be if we suppressed this perception?  (Of course, the perception might be wrong, but that is quite another issue.)[3]

And yet (as in the case of Palmer, above) sometimes this type of analysis is vital:

…an ad hominem argument is a device intended to divert attention from the critical examination of the substance of an argument, and to discredit that argument by dragging in irrelevant considerations having to do with the character or motives of its author.  That this is disreputable procedure is clear enough in cases where the argument itself is ‘followable’: in which those being addressed have the opportunity of addressing themselves systematically and exclusively to ‘relevant’ considerations.  The impersonal ethos of science is based on the proposition that what science offers is ‘public knowledge,’ subject to criticial examination by the scientific community.  The ‘replicable experiment’ is the prime example of this characteristic of science…. On this assumption, ad hominem arguments are surely an irrelevancy, and should be scornfully dismissed.

But, are the characteristic products of historians like this?  The historian has seen, at first hand, a great mass of evidence, often unpublished, and difficult to access.  The historian develops an interpretation of this evidence based on years of immersion in the material [critics of the Church develop their views in a much shorter period of time, and with much less profundity]—together, of course, with the perceptual apparatus and assumptions he or she brings to it.  Historians employ devices, the footnote being the most obvious example, to attain for their work something resembling ‘replicability,’ the the resemblance is not all that close.

Most historical writing is, at best, ‘semipublic’….The historian is less like the author of a logical demonstration…more like a witness to what has been found on a voyage of discovery [or in a court room].  And arguments which are illegitimate when addressed to the author of a transparently followable syllogism are quite appropriate in the case of a witness.”[4]

The same author goes on to quote a logic textbook, which tells us: “certain motives weaken our competence and our readiness to observe certain facts or to state them fairly.  Hence the existence of such motives, if such existence can be be proved in any given case, is relevant to determine the credibility of a witness.”[5]

Finally, as I noted before, I think many critics have confused sarcasm, irony and cynicism for ad hominem.  Others seem to feel that these have no place in scholarly pursuits.  I think this is wrong. A bit of well placed sarcasm can be quite effective in the context of an overall argument (conceding the fact that a response that is nothing but sarcasm isn’t very effective).   They can be used to effectively –and colorfully – point out the deficiencies in an argument.  Furthermore, while I make no claim to having read extremely wide-afield, it is my experience that virtually every form of academic writing that I have come into contact with has included sarcasm, irony and cynicism as accepted facets of the form.  To focus on these aspects, and refuse to address or even acknowledge the serious argument being made, is to commit another fallacy: the “style over substance fallacy” (http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Style_over_substance_fallacy).  And, critics of the Church commit this fallacy (and others) every time they complain about, say, Dan Peterson’s sense of humor (or lack thereof) without acknowledging the serious argument he is always making.  G.K. Chesterton, a Catholic apologist with a similarly sharp wit, once observed, “Mr. McCabe thinks that I am not serious but only funny, because Mr. McCabe thinks that funny is the opposite of serious. Funny is the opposite of not funny, and of nothing else.”[6]

In fine, looking at relevant aspects of the person making the argument is not a fallacy.  In many aspects it is essential to making an informed judgment of the argument. It’s a matter of relevance. The fact that critics have to stoop to their own invocation of ad hominem and the style before substance fallacy argues that they are ill-equipped to confront the arguments being made.


[2] We call them inmates.

[3] Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 11-12.

[4] Novick, 219-220, bold added

[5] Morris R. Cohen and Ernest Nagel, An Introduction to Logic and Scientific Method (new York, 1934), 180; cited in Novick, 221.

[6] Gilbert K Chesterton, “On Mr. McCabe and a Divine Frivolity,” Heretics (New York: John Lane company, 1905 [twelfth edition, 1919]).

 

8 thoughts on “It’s a Matter of Relevance

  1. Pingback: 2 July 2012 | MormonVoices

  2. justapunkkid

    Excellent post, I do, however think you are missing an important question: is it really useful? What am I trying to achieve here?

    When I first got into studying about the ‘truth’ about church history Palmer’s book was one of the first I read. I read Sunstone Magazine’s famous (or what is now to me infamous) review of the farms review Insider’s View. That one article kept me away from everything FAIR or FARMS for three years.

    When I finally gave you guys a try, I Brant Gardner’s “By the Gift and Power.” That book was amazing, not because I agreed with every word Gardner said but because how he presented his case. He was polite, even complimentary to sources which FAIR wiki sometimes calls ‘critics of the church.’ He also was willing to take very brilliant LDS scholars like Skousen through some tough scrutiny while still being respectful, and even complimentary.

    After reading the book I was convinced that I had completely misjudged NAMI. Now I think I have a more nuanced view. I believe not all NAMI work is created equal, but there is a lot of good stuff that certain groups just dismiss because NAMI and FAIR are ‘apologists.’

    When intellectually minded people have their first encounter with FAIR or NAMI what will it be like for them? Just because something is relevant, doesn’t mean it is helpful in persuading. Gardner’s civility won me over as much or more than his arguments. I still disagree with some points he makes, yet Garnder’s civility draws me in to trust him in ways I might not because I feel like he understands my doubts.

    There are other excellent scholars at NAMI and I don’t intend to name them all, I use Gardner as an example of what I would hope everyone experiences their first real encounter with FAIR or NAMI. Let’s make the experience so unlike what they’ve been told by Dehlin and others that they question their past sources credibility because they see patience and generosity manifest in our work.

    I have since read the FARMS review of Insider’s review and I felt the most effective for someone like me was Mark Ashurst-McGee. I liked others too but I like how Mark stuck to the facts, admitted there was more than one way to look at historical events, ect.

  3. bhodges

    I think John Dehlin fundamentally misunderstands what “ad hominem” is. I can’t tell if he is employing the term as a logical fallacy, or if he simply means that talking about any particular person’s actions or beliefs in non-flattering terms is invalid as “ad hominem.” If he is using the term in the former sense he will likely be hard-pressed to find an actual example of that fallacy in the FARMS Review. As Lance explains here, using credentials or experience as leverage opens one’s credentials or experience to scrutiny. If he is using the term in the latter sense then his calls for a more open discussion of church history, “warts and all,” seems counter to his ethic of avoiding the personal.

    The narrative that DCP, Midgley, etc. were released because of “vicious ad hominem attacks” may be prominent, but it isn’t the only narrative out there. Any and all criticism, however, shouldn’t automatically be lumped in with the worst of such criticism. It’s possible to assert that the approach and tone of some of the FARMS Review material doesn’t display a certain level of decorum appropriate for discussion of religious differences. This is obviously a matter of taste, but it also can be measured in terms of potential audience, and potential impact. There are moral and pragmatic arguments against some of the more acerbic FR pieces that have been published. (One is usually told to “get a sense of humor” when this is pointed out.)

    Lance is making an argument about legitimacy (Blake Ostler has made similar arguments on other blog posts): “The question is, however, is an ad hominem attack always, and for all purposes, illegitimate?”

    Lance, as a lawyer, offers a legalistic view of the way historians/critics might operate, but this is not the only (or even the most presently relevant) mode available to the historian. I agree that, when a person invokes credentials or makes much of their background or rests their argument on themselves they open themselves up to uncomfortable analysis.

    But it isn’t so simple as arguing that either such analysis is legit or not legit. There are less legit ways of executing legit purposes, for example. We could get more into that, but the question I’m more interested in is not about legitimacy, but rather whether such an attack is effective, and if it is, what is it effecting? Is it the only way to effect? Is it the best way to so effect?

    Paul Harvey’s recent column about the pseudo-historian David Barton is interesting to consider in light of this discussion. He talks about the problems of dealing with less-than-competent claimed authorities.

    http://www.religiondispatches.org/books/atheologies/6033/the_quixotic_task_of_debunking_david_barton/

    The approach, tone, generosity, of the reviewer will help non-specialists better appreciate the process, and will hopefully facilitate more good will than the often-acrimonious exchanges tend to generate. justapunkkid’s comment above does a very good job of pointing out why the more acerbic reviews are turning many people off–scholar and amateur alike, despite the crowd of folks who enjoy that brand of wit, sarcasm, humor, or even sometimes outright rigor (overkill).

    Yes, relevance matters. But I think it’s also a matter of effectiveness, and even more than that, charity, even for those with whom we disagree. (This, of course, doesn’t mean I think all or most of FARMS’s output fails on the grounds of charity, but there are examples where the tone and approach are not charitable to the work being criticized. I’ll likely be asked to provide examples, but to be honest, I’m not particularly interested in digging for dirt in the FARMS archive at the present. Those who’ve seen it will know what I’m talking about.)

  4. justapunkkid

    Thanks Blair! You said what I was trying to get out a lot better than I did! By the way, you were also one of my first encounters with FAIR because of your LDS FAIR cast. You also blew away. I hope my use of Gardner didn’t come across as ‘why can’t all you guys be like this’ since I firmly believe the vast majority of NAMI or FARMS are very civil and well reasoned.

    I’ve since found it ironic that the folks who are always crying ‘ad honimen’ will turn right around and say ‘well that was written by an apologist!’

    I just wanted to clarify: Lance I agree with you Martha Beck. Accusations of impropriety will by their nature cause us to examen the character of the person making them. And I also agree that questioning Palmer relevant and that many of the claims of the meaness of the attacks against Palmer are over blown to say the least.

    The difference I see between Beck and Palmer is that with Beck there is simply no other way to deal with the challenge. With Palmer I think there is, I like Blair’s link, maybe explain Palmer through his approach and methodology. Examining his tenure at CES just seemed less persuasive to me. Afterall, we’ve had Aposltes in this (and Jesus’) dispensation apostatize, even if Palmer was all he claimed to be and a glass of tea, I think examining how poor his methods are would get the point across in a much more dispasionate way. Plus, I think that putting so much emphasis on Palmer’s station in CES only adds credibility to future ‘Palmers’ who may have climbed the ladder at CES a little higher. My issue with Palmer (or any future Palmer) isn’t ‘how high up did you go’ but rather the quality of the evidence which supports their arguments, and sadly in Insider’s View it is SCANT! So why make an argument which could bolster a future Palmer who simply climbs the CES ladder but still uses equally bad methodologies?

    Confession to bias: I prefer dispasionate polemics to the sharper stuff. I find it more persuasive, especially to those few who are really listening and trying to decide which side to join or what to believe. The hard core NAMI fans will stay regardless and there will always be a group that will hate NAMI and FAIR no matter what you guys do. But I think for that small percentage in the middle someone who can speak in a calm voice of confidence will be the most likely to win them over.

    Anyway, sorry, this was a lot longer than I wanted. My intent was to balance out my last post, point out that 90% of everything that comes out of NAMI/FAIR is great, and that the 10% isn’t nearly as bad as Delhin says. And that even that 10% is based on my personal preference. I am open to evidence that I’m wrong about that 10%, since I am basing my whole theory on my personal, yet still anectodal, experience.

  5. Eric

    Thanks for the thoughtful discussion. The emphasis in the comments on impact and outcome is certainly thought-provoking. It reminds me of the philosopher John Searle’s speech-act theory, where one is concerned with the locutionary, illocutionary, and even perlocutionary force of one’s utterances (Searle’s terms). Best wishes to all of you.

  6. Pingback: Of Logic and Pseudo-Logic

  7. Bryce Haymond

    Excellent. This has been a pet peeve of mine for a while. You cannot completely bifurcate an argument from its author. Argument is not made in a vacuum; its source is an individual, with a complete life’s experience which caused them to make the argument in the first place. Yes, some arguments can be judged alone (e.g. the sky is blue), because they are independently verifiable. But more complicated, intricate arguments or recounting of historical events almost always takes into account “who” is making them, their character, education, and reputation, otherwise our world would come to a stand still reinventing the wheel or failing to come to any conclusions for lack of verifiability.

  8. c824767

    Last year, in this Review, I examined Peter Bartley’s polemic against the Book of Mormon, and termed it “rather worthless.” I had not yet read Loftes Tryk’s The Best Kept
    I cannot see John DEhlin’s attempt at collecting Ad Hominems by FARMS but here’s one fun one from 2011 which I just found (without really looking for one) at the MI site:
    “Last year, in this Review, I examined Peter Bartley’s polemic against the Book of Mormon, and termed it “rather worthless.” I had not yet read Loftes Tryk’s The Best Kept Secrets in the Book of Mormon, which is incomparably worse. For all his many, many flaws, Peter Bartley now seems to me by contrast the Shakespeare, the Michelangelo, the Aristotle, the Einstein of anti-Mormonism. If Bartley’s book is no Rolls Royce—if, indeed, it more closely resembles an engineless Studebaker sitting on grass-covered blocks behind a dilapidated barn—it is nonetheless infinitely more sober and respectable than Loftes Tryk’s literally incredible volume, a gaudily painted Volkswagen disgorging dozens of costumed clowns to the zany music of a circus calliope”… off to google “calliope”

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