On Ad Hominem: An Unreliable System

"An ad hominem attack against an individual, not against an idea, is highly flattering. It indicates that the person does not have anything intelligent to say about your message."

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

The most common and primitive form of irrational arguing is when you attack the person rather than engage the person's point. This is called the "ad hominem" and intuitively we learn the effectiveness early on in life. We don't necessarily need to learn this from someone else, we very quickly pick this up on our own because it is easy.

It's seductive because it does three things: it gets a reaction from people, it hurts the person you are arguing against, and it requires no amount of critical thought or study. You can walk into any debate — a topic you know nothing about — and employ this tactic. This is why it's a logic fallacy, because it proves nothing. It would be similar to judging the taste of water without actually tasting the water or knowing anything about water, but rather forming your opinion based on the pitcher that it came in.

It's Only a Comic Book...

Comic books for years had a stigma; that since it came in a comic book form, it couldn't be very good. It wasn't being judged on the content, but on the medium that it was delivered in. The quality of the message was being judged solely on the messenger. How often do we do this in our own lives? Ignore the content and just look at the cover? This is strange to think about because now comic book content are some of the most valuable of intellectual properties. It's not a reliable system, imagine judging someone on how they look rather than the strength of their character?

Evidence Based Decision Making

Sometimes evidence will show that the ad hominem is correct, sometimes it won't. They aren't directly related. Will a very lean person know more about health than an overweight doctor? Depends on what they're claiming. What does the evidence show? What's been proven in the past about this claim? What are similar instances of this idea working? How similar are those instances? Put aside for a moment who's arguing what and just look at the claims independently. Also what are their credentials? Is it related to this topic? And what have they accomplished? Not on themselves (personal testimonials can tug at our emotions but can often be misleading), but do they have a large amount of data to support their claims? Sometimes you look at a person and you just want to take their word for it. (The sister of ad hominem is the halo effect, rather than your dislike of the person influencing you, it is your partiality for the person that influences you.) They may be right or they may be a "red herring" that leads you astray.

An ad hominem attack against an individual, not against an idea, is highly flattering. It indicates that the person does not have anything intelligent to say about your message.
— Nassim Nicholas Taleb

It's an Unreliable System Relying on Unreliable Narrators

The people involved can be very distracting and sometimes it helps to pretend the claims came anonymously. Look at all the factors, do the research, then form conclusions. Don't get seduced by the presentation, look at the substance of the claims. This takes more effort but you will reap more benefit. Why do people make decisions that go against their best interest? Ad hominem is one of the reasons. Do the work, don't be lazy, and do your own thinking.


Ad hominem is more about winning than it is about actually being correct or being aligned with the truth. It's an unreliable way to make decisions, it's also a negative way to conduct yourself. You can never know the size of an iceberg based solely on the tip that's above the surface. Most decisions in life are like that. It requires more study and evaluation, but study and evaluation not only makes you a more thoughtful person but it also positions you to make better decisions in life.

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