Skepticism and the Ad Hominem Fallacy…..

A few nights ago I happened to catch a thought-provoking line of dialogue while channel surfing. A fictional program involving alien visitors to Earth made use of the standard meet-cute to introduce a rugged, no-nonsense cab driver and a scientist specializing in astronomical anomalies. The astrophysicist, a believer in UFO visitation, called the cabbie a closed-minded skeptic. While I have no doubt that this was not the writer’s desired outcome, the character’s words were upsetting. They evoked a visceral feeling of intense frustration.

I’ve experienced such a sentiment many times before. All outspoken skeptics have. Usually it emerges, as depicted in the aforementioned film, via an offhand response to the questioning of a firmly held belief. Occasionally, it is expressed in more descriptive and well thought out language, such as in a more substantial discussion or a formal debate. Regardless, the intention and underlying psychological impetus is the same. And, it is always part of an ad hominem argument.

An ad hominem, as described by the New England Skeptical Society, “attempts to counter another’s claims or conclusions by attacking the person, rather than addressing the argument itself.” On their list of the top 20 logical fallacies, they use as a prime example of an ad hominem argument the very same one put into use by the movie’s UFO proponent: calling the skeptic closed-minded.

I have no doubt that some self-described skeptics are closed-minded. The term skeptic isn’t an earned degree. It isn’t regulated by some government agency. Anyone can claim the title and many do undeservedly. As a rather depressing example, take for instance the small but vocal community of so-called 9/11 skeptics that claim the terrorist attacks were perpetrated by our own government. And even if someone taking a legitimate skeptical stance on a topic is truly closed-minded, it has no bearing on whether their argument is valid. In a similar vein, just because a person arguing that the earth is flat, or some other absurdity, is a certified nut, calling them such is not a rational rebuttal to the claim. The door swings both ways.

In reality, a successful skeptic, at least in the overwhelming majority of instances(1), is the polar opposite of closed-minded. Open mindedness is, in fact, a bedrock foundation of the practice of skepticism. Like science, skepticism is a method of interpreting the world around us, and of accepting a claim only based on reason and the best evidence at their disposal, and then only provisionally. A skeptic is comfortable withholding judgement until such evidence is proffered, and ready to adjust any conclusion as better evidence becomes available.

In a general sense, it is the true believer and not the skeptic that has shut their mind against the interference of reality with their deeply held conviction. As QualiaSoup so succinctly explains in his brief but brilliant video on the subject of using a call for open-mindedness as an argument in support of a belief, open-mindedness is really just code for “agree with me!”.

Skeptics may dedicate their lives to speaking out against a variety of belief systems, from alternative medicine to zermatism, but at heart we would love for a lot of it to be true. Although I feel that the natural world holds more wonder than anything that could be thought up by the likes of Sylvia Brown, Deepak Chopra, or Betty Hill, I still daydream about alien crafts landing on the White House lawn or being able to send objects hurling across a room with merely a thought. Just don’t expect a leap of faith when it comes to acceptance of any claim. A good skeptic is open-minded by definition, but as physicist Richard Feynman warned, not so open-minded that their brain falls out.

(1) Nobody is perfect. Even the most staunch of skeptics can have that one compartmentalized woo nugget squirreled away in their oversized cortex. Not me though. And if you don’t believe me, just ask my psychic 10,000 year old Atlantean spirit guide.

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