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Critical Thinking in an Age of Madness

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I had not planned on writing on this topic as my Bits Blog posting deadline approached. But when a headline in the L.A. Times on February 21st blared that "Conspiracy theories about Florida school shooting survivors have gone mainstream"—and this on a day when America's school children rose up to say "enough is enough" about gun violence—I felt that I ought to say something. What to say, however, is difficult to decide. As I wrote after the Route 91 Harvest music festival massacre in Las Vegas, I am not confident (to put it mildly) that anything meaningful is going to be done—the L.A. Times has a nailed it with a "Handy clip-and-save editorial for America's next gun massacre" and I don't have any solutions that the students now marching for their lives aren't already proposing more effectively than I can. But the whole mess has—thanks to something I've read in the Washington Post—enabled me to crystallize a solution to a critical thinking conundrum that I've been pondering, and that's what this blog will be about.


That conundrum is how to teach our students how to distinguish between reliable and unreliable information on the Internet. It seems like such an easy thing to do: just stick to the facts and you'll be fine. But when the purveyors of conspiracy theories have grown as sophisticated as they have in mimicking the compilation of "factual" evidence and then posting it all over the Internet in such a way as to confuse people into thinking that there is a sufficiency of cross-referenced sources to make their fairy tales believable, it becomes more of a challenge to teach students what's rot and what's not. And as I've also written in this blog, that challenge isn't made any easier by academic attacks on objective factuality on behalf of poststructural theories of the linguistic and/or social construction of reality. So, as I say, the matter isn't as simple as it looks.


Here's where that Washington Post article comes in. For in Paul Waldman's opinion piece, "Why the Parkland students have made pro-gun conservatives so mad," he identifies what can be used as a simple litmus test for cutting through the clutter in an alt-fact world: keep an eye out for ad hominem arguments in political argumentation.


Here's how he puts it:

The American right is officially terrified of the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Those students, who rapidly turned themselves into activists and organizers after 17 of their fellow students and teachers were murdered at their school, have become the most visible face of this new phase of  the gun debate, and conservatives are absolutely livid about it. As a consequence, they’re desperately arguing not just that the students are wrong in their suggestions for how gun policy should be changed, but also that they shouldn’t be speaking at all and ought to be ignored.

There are two critical reasons the right is having this reaction, one more obvious than the other. The plainer reason is that as people who were personally touched by gun violence and as young people — old enough to be informed and articulate but still children — the students make extremely sympathetic advocates, garnering attention and a respectful hearing for their views. The less obvious reason is that because of that status, the students take away the most critical tool conservatives use to win political arguments: the personal vilification of those who disagree with them.

It is the use of "personal vilification of those who disagree" that reliably marks out an evidence-starved argument. Thus, when Richard Muller—once a favorite of the climate change denial crowd—reviewed his data and announced in 2012 that he had changed his mind and concluded that climate change is both real and anthropogenic, his erstwhile cheerleaders simply began to call him names. And you probably don't even want to know about the personal attacks they have been making on Michael Mann.

But given the high level of personal vilification that takes place on the Net (the political left can be found doing this too), our students have probably been somewhat desensitized to it, and may even take it for granted that this is the way that legitimate argumentation takes place. This is why it is especially important that we teach them about the ad hominem fallacy, not simply as a part of a list of logical and rhetorical fallacies to memorize but as a stand-alone topic addressing what is probably the most common rhetorical fallacy to be found on the Internet, and political life more generally these days.

Now, we can't stop simply with warning our students against ad hominem arguments (we should teach them not to make them either), but we can establish the point as a kind of point of departure: if someone's claims are swathed in personal attacks and accusations, it is likely that there is nothing of substance behind the argument. After all, an ad hominem attack is a kind of changing of the subject, a distraction from the attacker's lack of any relevant evidence.

I know this won't change the world, and it is of no use against the sort of people who are now vilifying American school children who have had enough, but at least it's a place to begin for writing and critical thinking instruction.

Migrated Account

“…if someone's claims are swathed in personal attacks and accusations, it is likely that there is nothing of substance behind the argument. After all, an ad hominem attack is a kind of changing of the subject, a distraction from the attacker's lack of any relevant evidence.”

Having read the Waldman piece I'm not sure that this is the right takeaway. After all, the entirety of the Waldman piece could be read as a legitimate and well-supported ad hominem against political  conservatives. Waldman accuses the conservatives of falling back on tropes about the Parkland students that do have an ad hominem flavor to them: the “paid actors” trope and the “innocent dupes” trope. In doing so, Waldman alleges, the conservatives are arguing in a way that betrays an unwillingness or inability to address the substantive aspects of the gun control debate. This certainly is an ad hominem attack, and a particularly potent one too! Waldman is using it to call the audience’s attention to the fact that the conservatives he mentions are arguing about a serious matter in a way that is at best lazy and at worst completely misleading, because (he thinks) they don’t have the goods to argue seriously. These are claims to which conservatives ought to respond on pain of losing credibility as serious participants in the debate—in other words, on pain of losing their ethical (in Aristotle’s rhetorical sense of ethos) standing.  Far from changing the subject, it seems to me that Waldman’s ad hominem is laser focused on on it.  

It seems to me that many of our political arguments are ad hominem arguments that work just like Waldman’s, in which some person or group of persons is held to account for being disingenuous, irresponsible, or hypocritical. The difference between the acceptable and unacceptable arguments of this sort, it seems to me, are at least two: 1) In the good ones there is a sufficient amount of the right sort of credible evidence marshaled in support of the character claim and 2) The good ones are ones in which the issues of character brought to the fore are relevant to the discussion. As argumentation theorists and those working in informal logic have shown us  there are a number of ways to parse the types and qualities of a good ad hominem argument but these two ideas seem to me to be the key ones in most of the more plausible accounts out there.

Generally I’m not much a fan of litmus tests but I absolutely agree that we need to become far better at helping students need to become adept at dealing with such arguments. If we are considering students in their role as appraisers and evaluators of arguments (i.e. in their role as members of an actual or ideal audience) then it seems to me that it might be closer to the mark get them to ask, when confronted with an ad hominem argument: does this argument provide us (the audience) with information we can use to draw well-supported conclusions about the arguer’s motives, intentions, truthfulness, or about the likely probative goodness of their arguments? If the answer is no, then likely it is a distraction of some or other sort that should be discounted. If the answer is yes, however, perhaps the argument—and any response to it—ought to be weighed more carefully?


You raise a valid point.  Indeed, I see a kind of Derridean paradox looming here: exposing an ad hominem argument  can itself be construed as being ad hominem.  Perhaps there is a difference, however, between attacking people personally—as the attacks on identified students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are personal attacks that have nothing to do with the subject of student safety and gun control—and pointing out how certain political points of view are routinely presented in terms of personal ad hominem attacks.  But, at any rate, point taken.

About the Author
Jack Solomon is professor of English at California State University, Northridge, where he teaches literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics. At present he is Director of the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review, a task to which he frequently applies the critical thinking insights that cultural semiotics can reveal. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.