Ad Hominem Absurdum

A little story popped up in the press today that offers what my wife and I, in the context of our responsibilities toward our 4 year-old son, often refer to as “a teaching moment.” That opportunity is afforded by an accusation out of Greenpeace this morning that Cato, along with 40 other policy organizations, are wholly-owned subsidiaries of Exxon-Mobil and thus should not be trusted.

The contention that Exxon-Mobil funding colors Cato’s analysis (with contributions, by the way, that accounted for less than 1/10th of 1% of our budget in 2006) is compelling only if Greenpeace has some sort of “motive detection device” that can be produced for public inspection. For instance, I say I’m motivated by genuine skepticism that industrial greenhouse gas emissions will usher in the Book of Revelations. They say I’m motivated by greed. We can settle this argument to the satisfaction of some third-party observer … how exactly? Even administering me with liberal doses of sodium pentathol is unlikely to settle this little spat about the nature of my character.

The truth is that my colleagues at Cato and I are skeptical about the end-of-the-world scenarios bandied about by zealots like Greenpeace, we anchor that skepticism in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, and that skepticism naturally attracts funding from those parties who like what they hear. Arguing that causality actually works the other way is not only an unproved and unprovable assertion (let’s call it “faith-based argumentation”), it is impossible to square with all the work we’ve published arguing against many of the things the oil industry is known to support.

For instance, we have vigorously argued against President Bush’s national energy strategy and the resulting Energy Policy Act of 2005, called for the dismantlement of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, railed against federal oil and gas subsidies, argued for the elimination of the Clean Air Act rules that allow older refineries to escape tough anti-pollution standards, suggested giving the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the Greens to do with as they wish, argued against allowing cost-benefit analysis to dictate environmental standards, and defended the government’s right to renegotiate drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico that provided highly favorable contractual terms to some oil companies.

Regardless, Greenpeace’s assertions — even if true — are founded upon a classic logical fallacy. For those who never took a course in logic, it’s called ad hominem. Despite what the body politic might otherwise believe, the merit of an argument has nothing to do with the motives of the person making that argument.

For instance, if the Institute for Policy Studies argues that minimum wage laws have little net effect on unemployment and produce citations in the literature to back that up, the reply that “IPS is staffed by a bunch of socialists who simply want to bring down capitalism and should thus not be listened too” persuades only those people who are too intellectually lazy or mentally impaired to think straight. Similarly, if Cato argues that it’s very hard to justify tight greenhouse gas emissions controls using strict cost-benefit analysis — and provides academic citations to back that up — the charge that “Cato is paid by Exxon-Mobil to take that position and thus shouldn’t be listened too” is likewise a variation of the argument made famous by Joe McCarthy. “He’s evil — and thus a liar.”

And in that vein, notice the thinly veiled smear entailed in Greenpeace’s constant use of the phrase “climate denial” and its related cousins. In this context, it’s obviously meant to echo the ugly “climate denial is like Holocaust denial” charge rampant at some high-decibel quarters on the Left. Greenpeace’s strategy here is to leave no insult or character smear off the table in its drive to censor the policy debate.

That Greenpeace resorts to such a tactics does not surprise. Those with good arguments pound the arguments; those with poor arguments pound the table. God forbid Greenpeace grant that people of good will might actually disagree with them. And God forbid that we ask people to judge an argument by the facts rather than some schoolyard game of “you stink.”