MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

Let me briefly pick up the issue about ad hominem attacks mentioned at the end of my last post.

One of the most striking feature of the debates about alternative medicine is, in my experience, the fact that, whenever the defenders of the indefensible ran out of rational arguments, personal attacks are rarely far. Personal or ad hominem attacks are fallacious arguments directly directed at a named individual which serve as substitutes for that individual’s arguments. In football terminology, they play the player instead of the ball.

After many years of being at the receiving end of this phenomenon, I have grown to be amused by it, not just amused, I have slowly started to appreciate it. Strange? Let me explain.

Initially, I have to admit, I was annoyed, sometimes livid when someone hurled a personal attack in my direction. At one stage, I even investigated whether my university did not have the obligation to legally protect me in such situations. Predictably, the answer was negative.

Later I considered on one or two occasions taking legal action myself. However, after just a minimum of reflection, I dismissed the idea: it is bad enough that the British Chiropractic Association sued my friend and co-author Simon Singh for libel, but under no circumstances did I want to display a similarly deplorable behaviour.

Eventually, I realised that an ad hominem attack often is an important signal indicating that the attacker is wrong, very wrong indeed. It is nothing else than an open admission by “the other side” that they have no more reasonable arguments, that they are resorting to unreasonable notions, and that they have lost not just the plot but also the debate. In other words, being personally attacked in this way is a compliment and an unfailing sign of victory – and, if that is so, we should be proud of every single ad hominem attack we get after a well-reasoned debate.

Even on this relatively young blog, we have already seen signs of such victories; most notably a chiropractor recently conceded defeat after a perfectly reasonable debate on the safety of spinal manipulation by stating that “Ernst is an infamous medical demagogue who speaks nonsense“. Yet this little outburst of chiropractic self-humiliation is nothing compared to plethora of similar statements elsewhere on the internet. The following list is the result of just ~10 minutes of searching; I took the liberty of copying a short quote from each site but enthusiasts will find much more revealing stuff, I’m sure.

http://harald-walach.de/2012/12/18/mausetot-durch-homoeopathie-edzard-ernst-und-der-grosse-killer-nix/

“…whether he [Ernst] has only written or also read them [the reviews he has published], is a matter of dispute between experts…”

http://www.truthwillout.co.uk/2010/03/the-trials-of-edzard-ernst/

“…he’s really just another dull academic who knows nothing about it.   The fact that someone decided he could have a title that makes it sound like he’s knowledgable [sic] is irrelevant, he remains a nobody in the field of complementary therapy, his own university don’t even seem to like him, just about everything he says is negative and no ordinary member of the public I’ve ever mentioned him to has heard of him at all, so although he’s beloved by a few hacks and a small platoon of cynics, the rest of the world could not give a toss.”

http://avilian.co.uk/2012/02/edzard-ernst-exposed-as-a-fraud-and-a-liar/

“Edzard Ernst Exposed as a Fraud and a Liar”

http://www.naturalmatters.net/news-view.asp?news=4136

“Edzard Ernst, Britains self proclaimed “first Professor of Complementary Medicine” is finding himself with a lack of funding and his unit is facing closure.

He is blaming his clash with Prince Charles, but why Professor Ernst thinks anyone wants to fund someone who claims to be a professor of CAM, yet spends all his time debunking CAM we will never know. Its a rather strange scenario we feel!”

http://www.homeopathytoday.org/tag/edzard-ernst/

“From time to time you may see news reports about “an expert” named Edzard Ernst who regularly offers commentary about the value of homeopathic medicine. Ignore any such references he makes on the subject. He has never received even an introductory education on the subject of homeopathy”

http://www.chiropracticlive.com/why-should-anyone-believe-what-professor-edzard-ernst-says-after-he-put-his-name-to-a-bbc-programme-he-now-describes-as-deception/

“Why should anyone believe what Professor Edzard Ernst says, after he put his name to a BBC programme, he now describes as “deception”.”

http://johnbenneth.wordpress.com/2010/11/28/i-challenge-edzard-ernst-and-the-evil-empire-at-exeter/

“EDZARD ERNST and the Evil Empire at Exeter”

http://theunhivedmind.com/wordpress2/?p=816

“Edzard Ernst, is not a credible source of information about the effectiveness of homeopathy”

http://community.wddty.com/blogs/adverse_reactions/archive/2007/10/05/Herbicide.aspx

“Prof Edzard Ernst (family motto: ‘I have not come to praise alternative medicine, I have come to bury it’) who has hardly said a good word for alternative medicine in all the years he has held the recently-created Complementary Medicine chair at Exter [sic]University. ”

http://campaignfortruth.com/Eclub/120107/CTM%20-%20confusedaboutalternativemedicine.htm

“the pharma-friendly gold standard that Ernst and his colleagues seem to worship”

http://www.chiropractorsforfairjournalism.info/The_Medical_GoodFellas.html

Edzard Ernst of the Medical School at the University of Exeter wrote his infamous 2010 study from England, “Deaths After Chiropractic: A Review Of Published Cases,” that once again raised the level of fear over chiropractic care when he noted that “Twenty-six fatalities were published since 1934 in 23 articles

It is hard to deny that these statements are amusing. But by far my favourite personal attacker is a German chap called Claus Fritzsche. He runs a website which, at one stage, seemed almost entirely dedicated to telling lies about me; and, what is best of all, he even took money for these efforts from several homeopathic manufacturers. Surely, apart from perhaps the Nobel Prize, this must be the nicest recognition, the sweetest feast of victory and greatest compliment any scientist might ever wish for.

So, ad hominem attackers of all ages, types, nationalities and persuasions, please keep them coming. I am unlikely to sue for libel; on the contrary, I will celebrate them for what they truly are: they are compliments for me, victories for reason and admissions of defeat for you.

34 Responses to Ad hominem attacks are signs of victories of reason over unreason

  • An excellent post. Such ad hominens have also been dubbed “quackolades”. Scroll down the left-hand side column of Skepticat UK’s blog to enjoy another batch…
    http://www.skepticat.org/

  • “Why should anyone believe what Professor Edzard Ernst says, after he put his name to a BBC programme, he now describes as “deception”. Thats a question which you refused to answer, hardly an “attack”.

    I am glad you will be able to celebrate these “compliments” for you, “victories for reason and admissions of defeat”. I will now “celebrate” the fact you blocked me on twitter for explaining the word quack to you. I am happy for Blue Wode to keep me informed of whats important in skeptic world. Enjoy your holiday, there must be more important things to worry about than a lack of guys in lab coats in chiropractic clinics or whatever flies your kite.

  • Lovely stuff, all classic. Just one small complaint: the links have been messed up and direct to Plymouth Uni webmail instead of the quack sites themselves.

  • Very well said.

    In my experience, ad hominems from quacks tend to be offered instead of rational argument, not after they’ve run out of them. That’s certainly true of the quackolades on my blog, which I originally gathered and displayed prominently, thinking it would make suchlike critics see how stupid they look. Turns out they’re even more stupid than I thought.

  • very nice article – just a minor correction – the name of the “German Chap” is Claus Fritzsche, and not Fritizsche as you use it above. I think its is is important for people who google for the name to see this article too :)

  • Interestingly, I engaged in a long discussion on the Truth Will Out blog. More than once (I recall) I asked whether the author was accusing you of making your data lie, or lying about your data. I like to think I made some useful points, and identified some considerable flaws and inconsistencies in the author’s argument (I could be wrong); but that entire discussion is now nowhere to be seen. (When I raised this in a later discussion on your alleged retirement, I was accused of having ‘verbose tendencies’ that risked boring the blog’s readers.)

  • Great article and quite a nice little collection of ad hominem attacks you’ve got there. Only thing is that quacks really believe that an ad hominem attack is a reasonable method of discussion. There’s nothing like watching a quack congratulate themselves on another successful attack on the person as if it was the decisive point in the argument. That quote about creationists is just as appropriate for quacks I think. Arguing with them is like playing chess with a pigeon. They knock over the pieces, shit on the board and then fly back to their flock to claim victory. Also comparable levels of intelligence

  • Ho, ho, ho:

    An ad-hominem attack:

    “Most of the really loony ideas turn out to be taken: ”

    “Having identified your treatment and a fantastic name for it”

    • who exactly is the person who is attacked here, in your opinion?

      • Any person who is called Woos, Quack’s. I think your quote confirms what they say in SCECOP: you do not realize their own logical fallacies.

        • Claiming that criticisms of ideas are personal attacks on the people holding those ideas is a tactic often used when the ideas themselves are indefensible.

          • Your you believe it? No wait, I do not believe you. Just read some of his blog’s from any region of the world with labels típics to “critical thinking”, “struggle against obscurantism” and noted that before any questioning their religion skeptic “science” they attack and insult.
            On the other hand you only have to read reviews like yours, lewis, Hess, Mojo, Skeptikakat, Guy Chapman, anarchic teapot, …. and mostly all say essentially the same, just change the style. You do not hacne reviews, make complaints.

          • I have no idea what Mr. Magoo was trying to say, but judging from Friday’s comment it’s obvious that he doesn’t understand what an ad hominem is.
            Mr. Magoo, let me explain the difference between ad hominems and offensiveness is:
            If I say “Homeopaths are wrong because they are quacks”, that’s a logical fallacy – being a quack doesn’t make you wrong, just like being someone of high standing – say a Nobel laureate – makes you be right.
            If however I say “Homeopaths are wrong: they deliberately ignore the vast majority of scientific evidence that shows their sugar pills are placebos, those quacks.” it’s offensive, sure, but it’s not the argument I rely on to claim they are wrong, hence it’s not a logical fallacy.

            If you carefully read (and understand) Prof Ernst’s blog post you’ll find that he doesn’t say “if the other side is offensive, you’ve won”, but “if their only arguments are personal attacks, you’ve won”.

          • Vicky said:

            If however I say “Homeopaths are wrong: they deliberately ignore the vast majority of scientific evidence that shows their sugar pills are placebos, those quacks.” it’s offensive, sure, but it’s not the argument I rely on to claim they are wrong, hence it’s not a logical fallacy.

            It’s only offensive to homeopaths.

          • Nah, it’s also offensive if you’re someone who swears by homeopathy, or if you’re any other kind of CAM practitioner – after all they, too, are happy to make claims that are either unproven or disproven, while misinforming prospective patients about “mainstream” (a.k.a. effective) medicine.

  • Just read some of his blog’s from any region of the world with labels típics to “critical thinking”, “struggle against obscurantism” and noted that before any questioning their religion skeptic “science” they attack and insult.

    I think you need to support that with some evidence, because on the basis of what you have already posted you don’t seem to understand the difference between a personal attack and having your ideas questioned.

  • You folks might find David Hitchcock perspective on ad hominems interesting. He argues that there’s no such thing as an ad hominem fallacy. You can find his article here: http://www.humanities.mcmaster.ca/~hitchckd/adhominemissa.htm

  • I’m sure that (most) readers will be interested in reading the signs of victories of reason over unreason which have just been posted by Stephen Barrett, MD, who runs Quackwatch:
    http://www.quackwatch.org/00AboutQuackwatch/nasty.html

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