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Ad Hominem Is a Fallacy, Not an Argument

In my latest column for AIER, I argue against ad hominem argumentation. A slice:

An even weaker argument against the Great Barrington Declaration is the observation that some people associated with AIER say, write, or tweet some things that other people find to be beyond the pale.

I don’t wish here to assess, and much less to defend, everything ever said or written by everyone affiliated with AIER. Undoubtedly, were I to survey it all I’d find much with which I disagree. But the same is true for every organization under the moon and stars.

Of relevance here is the irrelevance to the merits of the Great Barrington Declaration of what AIER associates Mr. X and Ms. Y said or tweeted.

Had the Great Barrington Declaration been penned by individuals known chiefly for their membership in the Libertarian Party, by Fox News interns, or by Miss Grundy’s sixth graders as a class project, dismissing it merely by pointing to the identities and affiliations of its authors would be acceptable. But this Declaration is co-authored by world-renowned scientists, each of whom is expert in the public-health challenges presented by Covid-19. Furthermore, this Declaration has been endorsed by a large number of other credible scientists. Under these circumstances, ad hominem dismissals of the Declaration simply carry no credibility.

Substantively criticizing parts or the whole of the Great Barrington Declaration is legitimate. Indeed, such criticism is welcome; it’s part of the scientific process. But in far too many cases people dismiss the Declaration with nothing more than ad hominem assertions and attempts to establish guilt by association. The conclusion that I draw from these sorts of dismissals is that those who offer them actually have no substantive criticism of the Declaration. After all, because substantive criticisms would carry more weight even with Miss Grundy’s sixth graders, anyone with such criticisms to offer would present them front and center rather than resort to ad hominem argumentation.

The greatest compliment paid to the Great Barrington Declaration, therefore, is one wholly unintended: Many of its staunchest opponents offer against it nothing beyond ad hominemattacks and accusations of guilt by association. This Declaration must indeed be powerful!


George Leef e-mailed to alert me to a potential confusion in my remarks above regarding members of the LP and sixth graders. I ought to have been more careful in my wording.

Ultimately, the only legitimate argument against any claim (or set of claims, such as the Great Barrington Declaration) is an argument that goes to the substance of the claim. No claim has its legitimacy established or debunked merely by pointing to the identity of those who put forth the claim. But the identity of those who put forth the claim is nevertheless an important source of information about whether or not it’s worthwhile to spend scarce time considering the claim.

A Declaration on how to deal with Covid-19 put forth by Miss Grundy’s sixth graders is so likely to be mistaken or vacuous as to justify a refusal to spend scarce time considering it and debunking it (if it is indeed mistaken or vacuous). But a Declaration written by eminent scholars such as Profs. Bhattacharya, Gupta, and Kulldorff cannot and ought not be dismissed so easily. Grappling with the substance of what they offer is necessary.