Tag Archives: ad hominem fallacy

Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt

In marketing, the term, F.U.D., shows up from time to time. Those letters stand for fear, uncertainty, and doubt. It’s a strategy used to keep people from accepting a new product or proposal by making people afraid to change from some old and settled way of doing things. But these days, this concept is used more generally to discuss attempts in a debate to sow F.U.D. against an idea without bothering to show any actual errors in facts and logic.

One example of this can be found in debates on-line about gun rights:

1.  What are you afraid of?

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Say that you carry a handgun for self-defense, and someone will ask you what you’re afraid of. It’s an inevitability, just like questions about penis size and other silly examples of ad hominem fallacies. But in addition to mocking a supporter of rights, the purpose of the question is to create fear in the minds of undecided people about those of us who are exercising our rights. The insinuation is that you wouldn’t want fearful and thus unstable people running around in public, now would you.

But let’s consider the data. Violent crime certainly does occur. The rate is down from years gone by, but attacks on good citizens do still occur. Preparing for a potential bad event is not fear. It’s a rational calculation.

On the other hand, carry license holders commit crimes at rates much lower than the average population. Consider these numbers on people who legally carry in Texas. Year after year, license holders represent a fraction of one percent of convictions. These data match reporting across the whole nation.

2.  But how can we know?

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How can we know that a person with a gun is a good person and not a bad person? We can spend endless hours debating epistemology, but specifically on this question, the essence of American values is the belief that human beings are good until proved otherwise. Asking how can we trust someone with the exercise of basic rights betrays the kind of attitude found in Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, a view that we must be strictly controlled to restrain our evil natures. That is a reasonable view to hold–one that I certainly don’t accept, though–but it is fundamentally contrary to the principle underlying a free society.

3.  What if I don’t believe you?

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In many discussions, there comes a point at which someone rejects not only interpretations based on judgements but facts as well. The facts about guns in the United States are mixed, leaving both sides the opportunity to have valid positions derived from their values–freedom or safety–without being compelled to choose one answer or another to be intellectually honest. For example, some 30,000 Americans die each year from gunshots, while something like 80,000 suffer non-fatal injuries. At the same time, hundred of thousands use firearms to defend their lives annually. But facts have an unyielding quality that creates cognitive dissonance in the minds of people not willing to ground their beliefs in reality.

So what do we do? We have to admit that we can’t reach everyone, but we can persuade those who are undecided, and we might persuade some who haven’t thought things through. My choice is to advocate for basic rights, a view I call eleutherianism.

Fishing for the Fellow under the Bridge

In my time writing and commenting on discussion boards and weblogs, I’ve run across a disturbing word: troll. Commentors are cautioned not to feed the troll, and anyone who expresses an opinion different from the majority’s risks being given that label. The term has two possible origins:

1. In Norse mythology, “troll” is a word used as a synonym for the Jötunn, the giants who are the equals and rivals of the Æsir and the Vanir. Readers of The Hobbit know of them as the monsters that confront Bilbo and the dwarfs before being tricked into staying out past dawn and turning into stone. Trolls also show up in the Harry Potter series. Then there’s the troll who lives under the bridge and eats travellers who try to cross.

2. The French verb, troller, means “to quest.” It’s used in English to refer to dragging bait through the water in hopes of catching fish.

The second of those is probably the origin of the term in Internet usage, since the offending commentor was someone who threw out silly or unrelated remarks in hopes of derailing the discussion, but it’s come to have both meanings, as seen by the idea of avoiding feeding said creature.

What disturbs me is the notion that a discussion must only be conducted by people who already agree on the main points. I’ve seen far too many cases of dissenters being called trolls for merely offering a contrary view. Our kind of society depends on a lively debate and a respect for the right of everyone to hold individual opinions. Yes, there are obvious cases of someone whose sole interest is to disrupt the conversation, but too often, moderators or participants label opposition as disruption.

This kind of attack is akin to the ad hominem fallacy. It’s directed at the person, while ignoring the points being presented. It’s also a sign of a small mind that is unable to address outside thoughts. I’ve said before that we get the society that we deserve. We shape that society by our participation in the marketplace of ideas. It should also be remembered that some of the Jötunn–Skaði, for example–live with the gods and are their friends. Odin himself consults Mímir, the giant guardian of the Well of Highest Wisdom. We dismiss trolls lightly at our peril.