What is an ad hominem attack?

Data Literacy Uncertainty and Misinformation

Tl;dr: Ad hominem attacks are used to insult a person’s motive or character rather than address the content of a specific idea or argument.

This type of mudslinging is an intellectual fallacy that draws attention away from the issue at hand and creates distrust of the individual. Let’s look at how ad hominem attacks can be used to trick us and how we can combat this bias!

Ad hominem attacks are everywhere! They are on the news, in our social media comments, and in our politics. Ad hominem means “to the person” and occurs when someone is irrelevantly attacking an individual, rather than the validity of their point. Ad hominems are a diversion strategy, used to refute an opposing view without actually having to do the hard work of refuting anything! This type of distraction is super effective, shifting the conversation from the meat of the discussion, putting the attacked person on the defensive, and digressing away from the real argument.

Let’s take a hypothetical example. Two people are debating whether Covid vaccines are safe and effective (spoiler alert: they are!). Sally is pro-vaccine, pointing to the data that Covid vaccines can reduce the risk of death or hospitalization from Covid infections. Billy is opposed to the Covid vaccine. Rather than engage in the discussion about the data, Billy resorts to an ad hominem attack saying “What do you know about health? You are overweight so you can’t be trusted to know about healthy choices!” This attack is meant to discredit Sally by tapping into weight bias and stigma and get her to defend herself rather than defend her argument. Of course, a person’s physical characteristics have nothing to do with this argument or their ability to make the argument. This has no bearing whatsoever on whether Covid vaccines are safe.

We have all been both victims of and perpetrators of ad hominem attacks. It can be easy to resort to attacking people when we feel out of our depth, don’t have data on hand, or feel threatened or challenged. However, we want to avoid that trap and stick to the facts. It is important to be on the lookout for ad hominem attacks. Keep a watchful eye for arguments that sidestep the issue, focus on individuals and not ideas, and are irrelevant to the key points. We tend to be more susceptible to bias when we are rushed, emotionally invested, or overwhelmed. Taking a few minutes to pause and ask key questions can help. Is that comment about this person meaningful to the discussion? Did the attack on this person add data that can help me make a decision or was it meant to distract from the issue at hand? What emotions did I feel when I heard that comment and how did that impact my decision making? Self-reflection and reexamining how we make decisions and interpret information can help us avoid the pitfalls of ad hominem attacks!

Stay safe. Stay well. Stay informed!

Those Nerdy Girls

Helpful Links:

How to Spot 16 Types of Media Bias

Ad Hominem Fallacy | Definition & Examples

Link to Original FB Post