Genetic and Ad Hominem Fallacies

Genetic and Ad Hominem Fallacies October 10, 2014

Genetic and Ad Hominem FallaciesIn 2012, the Heartland Institute (an American conservative think tank) put up a series of billboards featuring Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber), Charles Manson (a cult leader), and Fidel Castro (a dictator). The text was the same for each: “I still believe in Global Warming. Do you?”

These are examples of the genetic fallacy. We’re asked, “How plausible can the claim of global warming be if these nutjobs accept it?” A genetic fallacy ignores any actual evidence or argument and looks instead at the origin (think genesis) of the argument. It’s a fallacy because it offers no relevant argument.

More examples

Another example would be, “You’re a vegetarian? Don’t you know that Hitler was a vegetarian?”

But consider this: “You can’t tell me that those new phosphorescent zucchinis are safe! Don’t you know that the research that supports that claim was funded exclusively by MegaCorp, the company that patented that vegetable?”

This makes more than a simple origins claim (X comes from/is supported by Y) and is more compelling. To make this a classic genetic fallacy, we’d need to strip it down like this: “Don’t tell me that phosphorescent zucchinis are safe! MegaCorp says they’re safe.” Maybe the research funded by MegaCorp was actually good science.

Genetic fallacies in Christianity?

Now consider these claims: “Christianity was influenced by myths of dying-and-rising saviors; therefore, the resurrection of Jesus must also be a myth.” Or, “The Noah flood story came from a society influenced by neighboring flood stories like that of Gilgamesh; therefore, the Noah flood story is a myth.”

These are (1) genetic, since they make conclusions based on origins, (2) unsubstantiated, since these claims will need lots of supporting evidence, and (3) fallacies. I would argue that these aren’t genetic fallacies, however. They fail in my mind because the unequivocal conclusion (“… must also be a myth”) can’t be drawn from evidence that simply points in that direction.

The fallacy vanishes when we make a conclusion that could follow from the evidence: “Christianity was influenced by myths of dying-and-rising saviors; therefore, we must consider that the resurrection of Jesus may also be a myth.” We still have work to do to establish that Christianity was influenced as claimed, but the fallacy is gone.

Related fallacies

The genetic fallacy is the term for any argument that points solely to origin as its evidence, but there are many subsets of the genetic fallacy based on the specific origin.

  • Ad hominem: attacking the person rather than the argument. “Senator Jones wants to raise taxes, but he beats his dog; therefore, raising taxes is a bad idea.”
  • Tu quoque: saying, in effect, “Oh yeah? Well you do, too!” This argument tries to respond to a problem by claiming that the other person suffers from it also.
  • Argument from authority fallacy: using someone as a relevant source when that person is not an authority in the field at hand or is biased.
  • Credential fallacy: rejecting an authority because that person doesn’t have the right degrees.
  • Ad feminam: rejecting an authority because that person is a woman.

And so on.

Avoid making thoughtless charges of these fallacies. Not every attack on a person is an ad hominem fallacy. “Just ignore that fire alarm; that’s nutty Mrs. Smith” may be a fallacy, but “Ignore that fire alarm; that’s Mrs. Smith, and she’s phoned in a false alarm every week for three years” isn’t. (It may not be the safest response for the fire department, but it’s not a logical fallacy.)

And as seen above, not every genetic (origins) argument is a fallacy.

The human race can’t quit stupid cold turkey.
— commenter Greg G.

(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 5/12/12.)

Photo credit: Simon Varwell

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  • MNb

    One important thing to keep in mind is that pointing out a logical fallacy does not imply that the conclusion is wrong – it only shows that the argument does not back up that conclusion. In a way all logical fallacies are non-sequiturs.

    • Castilliano

      Just like mincemeat.
      And we all know how bad mincemeat tastes.
      Because of Hitler.
      Therefore Jesus.
      Checkmate, MNb, checkmate.

      Oh, and puppies love God, why don’t you?

      • Pofarmer

        Hey, what’s wrong with mincemeat?

        • Kodie

          It’s yucky.

        • Greg G.

          Klondike Kat always said, “I’ll make mincemeat out of that mouse!” Your next bite could be Savoir-Faire. Then again, your next bite of anything could be him because “Savoir-Faire is everywhere!”

        • busterggi

          Mush Malamutt!

        • wtfwjtd

          Ah yes,good ol’ Klondike Kat. I think that at one time mince meat really did consist of some type of meat, but somewhere along the way that got mostly changed to fruits and nuts and such. Oh well…

        • hector_jones

          For one thing, it’s not even meat!

        • Pofarmer

          Well, no, but still. Mince meat pie at christmas. Yum.

      • Susan

        puppies love God, why don’t you?

        Isn’t it obvious? God hates puppies. I was made in the image of God.

        So, I hate puppies. If puppies love God, then I’d better not.

        QED

    • TheNuszAbides

      even if i don’t specifically assert “that’s logical fallacy X” i’ve too often found myself in the weird position of criticizing the structure of someone’s argument, even though i agree on the central idea, then getting some absurd retaliation that assumes i agree with “the other side”.

    • Logan Blackisle

      Not only that, but it’s also often used as a conversation stopper.

      “You committed x fallacy, so it is pointless to continue until you fix that.”

      Which itself is a logical fallacy; funny how that goes.

      • hector_jones

        My favorite is the one that boils down to “you used a naughty word, therefore you lose and God exists!”

        • Kodie

          I know this guy, I’ve used him as an example before (his ridiculous global warming denial argument), he doesn’t like to be undermined when he’s telling someone “true facts”, so he’s always right because he won’t let you interrupt to correct him and starts increasing the volume so you can’t refute his assertions. The argument of “I won’t even let you talk” is what the theist sites like to do also.

    • Susan

      One important thing to keep in mind is that pointing out a logical fallacy does not imply that the conclusion is wrong. it only shows that the argument does not back up that conclusion

      Yes. It certainly doesn’t make your argument necessarily wrong

      The point about fallacies is that they can be used as easily on behalf of things that are clearly wrong as things that may be right.

      Pointing out fallacies is not a way of winning points. It’s an explanation of why points are not granted.

      If all you provide are fallacies, that is a red flag. Which is not to say an argument can’t be made In the future for a point you have failed to make. But there’s only so much time in a day. Get back to us when you have a persuasive non-fallacious argument.

      It’s irresponsible to take an assertion seriously that relies exclusively on fallacies.

    • $28895381

      “One important thing to keep in mind is that pointing out a logical fallacy does not imply that the conclusion is wrong ”

      Also known as the the fallacy fallacy.

  • Blizzard

    Jesus tu quoque:

    “And they answered, that they could not tell whence it was. And Jesus said unto them, Neither tell I you by what authority I do these things.”

    I don’t think Jesus ever gave a straight answer to anyone. He always turned it into some kind of song and dance lol.

    • Kodie

      That’s marketing for you.

    • Sophia Sadek

      It is unfortunate that his so-called followers lack the intellectual ability to do the same kind of dance.

      • Guest

        not really; then they’d ‘convince’ even more people than they already do!

        • Sophia Sadek

          Not really. Then they would avoid saying hateful, hurtful things.

  • hector_jones

    But Bob, if it weren’t for fallacies, where would Christians get their arguments? Sheesh.

    • busterggi

      They’d steal them from other religions just as they did with their holidays, rituals, etc.

  • RichardSRussell

    “Hitler was an atheist.”

    “Stalin was an atheist.”

    Both of these are examples of the genetic fallacy, but the 1st of them is easier to refute with “No, in point of fact, Hitler was a self-professed devout Catholic.”

    Personally, I find it more fun to ridicule both statements with the equally genetically fallacious but more obviously absurd Mustache Hypothesis.

    • There’s evidence that Hitler only paid lip service to Catholicism by the time he got in power. That said, there’s no real evidence for him being atheist-in fact, apparently there were plans for declaring him a god (or near enough). That may not be a surprise.

      • RichardSRussell

        Hitler often boasted of what a good Catholic he was. Of course, the fucker was probably lying about that as well. AFAIK, tho, he never claimed to be an atheist, nor is there any reason to believe he was one, if only in the closet.

        • hector_jones

          He tended to boast about what a good Catholic he was only publicly, and only in his early days. Privately and as he grew more powerful, he was more of a deist, speaking a lot about ‘Providence’ and almost never mentioning Jesus. I think the Jewishness of Jesus rankled him and his ultimate goal was to create some sort of Germanic monotheism to replace it, eventually, but he didn’t live long enough.

          He especially hated the Catholic Church’s power and was determined to put a stop to it, once he had won the war. He never quite fully accepted Himmler’s neo-paganism but he was obviously quite sympathetic to it.

        • In fact Hitler once lamented that Germans were Christians rather than Muslims. Take from that what you will.

        • MNb

          Source?

        • Inside the Third Reich by Albert Speer. Apparently the exact quote was this: “The Mohammedan religion too would have been much more compatible to us than Christianity. Why did it have to be Christianity with its meekness and flabbiness?” However, Speer also stated Hitler regarded the Arabs as an inferior race (not surprising as they are also Semitic) and allied with some of them only for politics. Hitler’s Table Talk also has this: “Had Charles Martel not been victorious at Poitiers… then we should in all probability have been converted to Mohammedanism, that cult which glorifies the heroism and which opens up the seventh Heaven to the bold warrior alone. Then the Germanic races would have conquered the world.” Many historians have questioned Table Talk‘s accuracy, however, so take it with a grain of salt, but it does fit with the quote in Speer.

        • MNb

          Interesting. Thanks.

        • Yep, that seems to be the size of it. Christians apparently forget that theism does not necessarily mean Christian.

        • MNb

          Christians also tend to forget that quite a lot of anti-christian feelings came from ….. christians. Of other denominations.
          Just google “Ian Paisley catholic quotes” for some fine recent examples.
          Also we Dutch know the slogan “rather Turkish than papal” – used by calvinists during the 80 Years War.

        • Yep. The “No True Scotsman” fallacy should have been better called “No True Christian” (or Muslim, etc.) because they spend so much time denouncing others as not of them.

        • My own fantasy: Hitler accepted Jesus before he pulled the trigger, and he’s now in heaven playing Parcheesi with Jesus, confounding the Christians down here who get misty-eyed at God’s “perfect justice.”

      • MNb

        It’s hard to maintain that Hitler was a catholic, but there are more brands of christianity. It seems to me that Hitler developed his own, perverted version. Anyhow Hitler was not an atheist.

        http://atheism.about.com/od/adolfhitlernazigermany/tp/HitlerNazisAtheismSecularism.htm

    • Dang! If only Mao had a ‘stache, that hypothesis would give you a run for your money.

  • Sophia Sadek

    Back in the nineteenth century, a British archeologist uncovered an Assyrian tablet documenting an expedition of military conquest that included symbolic references to the Mesopotamian flood story. It was a clear indicator that the Assyrian intellectual class had a metaphorical understanding of the flood story that makes it more of a coded political document than a nature myth. Socrates was famous for his use of symbolic code expressions in his criticism of the power structure that he considered to be illegitimate. Dismissing the story of Noah as mere myth can lead to a deliberate ignorance of valid and useful information. LIkewise, failure to see the parallels between the Gilgamesh cycle and the stories of Genesis is also a failure to unearth cultural meaning with the power to dissolve the ignorance of fundamentalism.

  • Kenneth Vaughan

    If it isn’t argued that Kaczynski, Manson, and Castro invented or popularized the theory of global warming, then why is this genetic instead of just ad hominem? Unless it is being argued that Hitler invented or popularized vegetarianism, or something along those lines, then why is this genetic?

    • Ad hominem is a subset of genetic.

      • Kenneth Vaughan

        Yes I know. But there are other kinds of ad hominem arguments as well. http://www.iep.utm.edu/fallacy/#AdHominem.

        It got a bit confusing for me, I ran across this blog while researching the specifics last night. I may be mistaken, but I don’t see a genetic nature to these without the implied premises I mentioned.