So, a friend of mine recently posted an image to his Facebook page, drawing the attention of “Teabaggers” (his term, not mine) to the fact that the largest single stockholder in News Corp, which includes Fox News, is Prince Alwaleed bin Talal al-Saud, of Saudi Arabia. This man is not a huge fan of some aspects of our country–particularly insofar as they might decrease his dividends. The veracity and overall unbiased accuracy of Fox News reporting was called into question.
He (my friend) was immediately excoriated by several acquaintances, who complained of his “ad hominem attack, straw man, and red herring”, and probably one or two other things I either can’t recall or won’t repeat here. These claims were made repeatedly, as my friend tried to justify his claims; I grew more and more confused, wondering if the person doing the majority of said complaining even knew what any of those logical fallacies actually are. (I was forced to conclude that he didn’t.)
So, in the interest of furthering the general knowledge (with a goal of more rational discussion), here are the definitions of these three types of logical fallacies, with (hopefully) some clear examples.
- Red herring. This is a diversion away from the original claim. In many mysteries, there will be a character that you are led to believe is the culprit; this is the red herring. (Wikipedia gives the example of Bishop Aringarosa in The Da Vinci Code.) Mythically, it supposedly derives from using a red herring on a string to train hunting dogs to stay on scent.
- Ad hominem. This logical fallacy attacks a point which is at best tangentially related to a claim in order to refute that claim. (As such, it is a subset of the Red Herring.) An example would be someone claiming some point–the Earth is round, say–to be refuted by, for instance, “but you’re a redhead, and therefore not trustworthy on such matters.” The rebuttal has nothing to do with the claim; it goes to the person (ad hominem in Latin) making the claim.
- Straw man. A misrepresentation of the position, making it easier to refute. Again, I like Wikipedia’s example: Person A states, “Sunny days are good.” Person B comes back with, “If all days were sunny, it would never rain, and the plants would die, and there would be famine. Therefore, you’re wrong.” The original claim said nothing about all days being sunny…
Now, whether some/any/all of those points were made during the Facebook row is really immaterial. (I didn’t see any straw men, nor ad hominem. Might there have been a red herring? Possibly, but I’d have to double-check.) The issue is that I don’t believe the participants actually grasped what those fallacies are, and wasn’t using them correctly. (To paraphrase Inigo Montoya, “I do not think this means what you think it means…”)
End of rant–for this week. (Don’t get me started on bad grammar–I’ve seen more examples at work this week, from ostensibly well-educated people, to last me a while…) Anybody else want to vent about their pet peeves?