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The Absurdity of Ad Hominem

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Joakim Book patiently and thoroughly exposes the weaknesses in ad hominem arguments – in this case with reference to ad hominem attacks on AIER’s Great Barrington Declaration [2]. Two slices:

As soon as the Bought-and-Paid-For objection is raised, two strange things happen. First, we start investigating the funding relationships behind the research in a totally unworthy fashion – remarkably akin to identity politics [3]: what someone says is downplayed in favor of the skin color, gender, class, or demographics of the person saying it, or in this case their funding bodies. That is, we cease following the proud tradition of the Enlightenment [4] and turn back time a few centuries in the application of scientific inquiry: devout believer or heretic destined for the stake?

Second, we disregard the evidence of the case in question! Instead of looking at what matters for the case at hand we look at what doesn’t matter: the identity of the researcher, her previous allegiances or funding backgrounds.

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Instead of arguing with the scientists of the declaration, on the merits of the scientific questions themselves, [Nafeez] Ahmed investigated AIER’s funding relationships. Surely, anyone saying something that Ahmed disagrees with must be a quack. Sure enough, Ahmed managed to dig up a (tiny) relation to the Charles Koch foundation: a $68,100 donation from 2018 (for reference, the publicly-available financial statements [5] of AIER show a balance sheet of $37 million, with another $167 million held in Split-Interest Agreements [6]).

Because AIER has apparently taken even a small amount of money from someone that the author dislikes, anything ever written on this site can be safely disregarded. What an easy life Ahmed lives! Find a disturbing argument, look up the financials, and if you find something distasteful, reject – without substantive evidence – everything they say.

Perhaps we can extend the logic of this senseless position even further. Everyone is financed by somebody: after all, even researchers and writers need to eat. If money “taints” your opinion – newsflash, it doesn’t – then how come it is only Koch brothers and oil company investments that do? Why not advertising money? Or government grants? What about whoever pays Ahmed’s salary? Or indeed anyone associated with a university: after all, every university with an endowment – until recently, when divestment became a symbolic aim for concerned student campaigns – holds investments in a wide range of securities, including oil, gas, and mineral extracting firms.

DBx: One especially comical feature of the accusation that AIER’s opposition to covid lockdowns springs from a 2018 contribution that AIER received from the Koch Foundation is that Tyler Cowen and the Mercatus Center this past Spring awarded funds to Imperial College modeler Neil Ferguson. The reason for this grant of funds was Tyler’s admiration of the fact that Dr. Ferguson’s model served as the spark for massive lockdowns in the U.K. and the U.S. But here’s the thing: Until last year, Charles Koch served on the board of Mercatus and has been, and continues to be, a contributor. Clearly, if the Koch Foundation is buying opposition to covid lockdowns, it’s doing a poor job!

And I myself am on the Mercatus board and have a deep, and proud, affiliation with Mercatus. I’m also a weekly – and proud – columnist for AIER. My position on covid and the lockdowns is quite different from that of Tyler; my position is much closer to that of Jeff Tucker and of AIER’s other writers. But I’m quite sure that Tyler and others who are more sympathetic to covid restrictions than I am hold their beliefs sincerely and for the best of motives. The notion that expressions of policy positions at odds with one’s own are mercenary is lazy and puerile. It’s a style of argument that one would not be surprised to find current during the dark ages, yet this style of argument – “argument” – remains quite in fashion in the 21st century, and not least among many people who believe themselves to be advanced thinkers.

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Another lazy and puerile accusation against AIER’s Great Barrington Declaration [7] comes from the Niskanen Center’s Sam Hammond. According to Mr. Hammond, writing at Twitter, AIER issued this declaration in order to goose-up the stock market! [8] Mr. Hammond accuses AIER of having a “conflict of interest” in calling for an end to all covid lockdowns.

Well now. I suppose that everyone who, in addition to AIER, opposes the lockdowns can be found in some way to have material interests that might be served by ending the lockdowns. David Henderson [9], I’m certain, has investments in the stock market. Now we see why David opposes lockdowns! Lockdown skeptic Holman Jenkins [10] writes a regular column for a publication titled, for heaven’s sake, The Wall Street Journal. Case closed! My friend Lyle Albaugh [11] watched helplessly, almost in tears, as his and his wife’s, Betsy’s, small business of 32 years was destroyed by the lockdowns – and Lyle and Betsy have money in the stock market – so clearly Lyle’s opposition to the lockdowns is purely mercenary. J.D. Tuccille [12] of Reason has been increasingly stern in criticizing the lockdowns; I don’t know him personally, but a good guess is that Mr. Tuccille has got some equity investments, so that explains that!

My dear friend and intrepid Mercatus Center colleague Veronique de Rugy has, I know, some of her wealth in the stock market – so, check, Vero’s skepticism of the lockdowns must also be mercenary and selfish rather than sincere and aimed at promoting the public good. Ditto for my friend and GMU Econ colleague Dan Klein [13].

And I, I here confess, have the bulk of my own modest wealth in the stock market. So I, too, am surely mercenary in opposing lockdowns [14]. Or so must think Mr. Hammond.

What a convenient argument! No need for real thinking or actual argumentation. No need to deal with complexities and trade-offs. No need to understand that well-meaning people often differ sincerely in their understandings of reality. No need for any such civilized engagement with, and respect for, others. No! Simply find a single possible venal motive and, boom!, case closed. Brilliant! Twitter scholarship at its finest!

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I do not believe that the identity of a person or organization that advances an argument is completely irrelevant. Knowing that identity is a piece of information with some relevance. It signals what perhaps might be genuine bias. But knowledge of a person’s or organization’s identity and source(s) of funding is hardly sufficient to carry the day. Ultimately, the merit of that person’s or organization’s argument must be assessed by the internal logic of the argument and its correspondence with empirical reality.

The fact that Nafeez Ahmed, Sam Hammond, and some others dismiss anti-lockdown arguments with ad hominem accusations is evidence as powerful as evidence gets that these people have no idea what an intellectually respectable argument is.

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