The Psychology Journal Ad-Hominem
March 31, 2016
Have you ever had someone tell you that liberalism is a mental disorder? Or that right-wingers vote for bad ideas just because they have an irrational world view? It’s a pretty common ad hominem in politics, and not a compelling one. The idea is a tautology: Find two people who have incompatible ways of looking at the world, and each will think the other’s way is somehow defective. But this silly tactic shows up in elite intellectual discourse way too often.
An early example is The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality by Ludwig von Mises, a book-length psychoanalysis of the author’s political opponents. The short version: people who resent their betters turn to communism since it means bringing everyone else down to their level. It’s not subtle.
More recently, academic examples skew leftward. To be clear, this is not a claim that left-wingers disproportionately rely on ad hominem. Nor is it a claim that there is some disproportionate weakness in the right-wing psyche. It’s probably because more psychologists are left-wing than ever before, and since the attack is based on psychoanalysis it shows up a lot in their literature.
Recent examples can be found with a quick internet search. Here are a couple:
Although these papers are more nuanced and focused than some all-encompassing manifesto, they are still ad hominems. The authors can and will claim that their research is purely academic and not intended as any kind of attack, but let’s be honest, there is one big obvious way this kind of research will always be used. It will be served up on popular political websites and compiled in brightly colored books, ready to be used as Thanksgiving ammunition.
The literature often uses global warming as an example, and a few things are going on here. In many circles global warming is an indisputable fact, so if you want to deploy some political ad hominem against the people who tend to be skeptical, it’s a great starting point. Also, the global warming movement hasn’t succeeded. This approach serves both as a play to convince voters after all, and as something to offer environmentalists disappointed with and confused by a lack of success.
The classic example in the subgenre is Lewandowsky et al’s famous Recursive Fury, a paper psychoanalyzing those who reacted poorly to another paper psychoanalyzing global warming skeptics. How it got through more than five minutes of planning without being abandoned, we may never know. In any case it was eventually retracted.
Another interesting example is On the relation between ideology and motivated disbelief by Campbell & Kay. To its credit, the paper does attempt to strike a balanced tone, supporting an ad hominem attack against both political parties. Still, they put a whole lot more effort into the global warming part, and the fourth study might be a strategic addition to give the impression of dispassionate science.
These ad hominems have been around for a long time and they aren’t going anywhere soon. But they are silly and don’t belong anywhere near academia. Even with the veneer of science, the tactic only convinces people who are inclined to accept the ad hominem anyway. It looks desperate and stupid to everyone else.