Logical Fallacy 2: Ad Hominem- A Personal Attack

Today's logical fallacy is also very common, in my experience. It's called Ad Hominem, which is roughly translated from the Latin for "to the person." It's a personal attack against you instead of your argument. It can be subtle because it isn't just that they call you a bad name, but they use a weakness or characteristic of you to imply that your argument is weak.

This is Part 2 in a series about Logical Fallacies. We are going through one fallacy at a time. There are many types of fallacious arguments. I'm going to try to explain them with examples then find ways to help you refute those arguments when they occur. Please comment or email if there's a particular fallacy you want me to tackle, or if you have success with refuting an argument using a good technique you can share.

Example: You: I don't believe in UFO's.
Opponent: You're so close minded!

Example: Opponent: I believe in UFO's.
You: You're crazy and/or stupid.

Example: You: I love Volkswagen cars. I think they're awesome.
Opponent: You only say that because you're German.

This last example is my favorite because it shows how subtle it can be. Instead of arguing directly, your opponent avoids the issue by saying you're biased because of your heritage, thus invalidating your argument. They don't have anything to do with each other, therefore the personal attack is invalid. But it could lead you into defending your heritage, thereby avoiding the original argument.

So, how do you counter such a personal attack? Again, all the resources I found only pointed out the problem, not the solution. This is how I'd refute it:

Example: I don't believe in ghosts.
Opponent: You're an atheist, you don't believe in anything.

My reply: This is a classic ad hominem (wow them with Latin! hee hee) argument. You are trying to change the subject by attacking me personally.

Now, you can defend yourself and deal with the rebuttal: Skeptical thinking does not mean that I don't believe in anything. I believe in many things.
I'm sure there are things you don't believe in. Unicorns, for example. Do you believe in unicorns?

When your opponent agrees that he doesn't believe in unicorns, you now have common ground from which to work from.

A second way would be to avoid defending yourself and simply restate your case along with an invitation to argue that point specifically: Your ad hominem argument is simply a personal attack. You avoided my statement completely. Whether or not I'm an atheist has nothing to do with my statement. I don't believe in ghosts, mainly because there is no evidence for them. I am open to your ideas, though. Do you have any proof of ghosts?

Ok, so there are two different ways to handle the situation. Let me know if you have any suggestions. Today I went around looking for an OCW course in logic or critical thinking. There aren't any at this time, which is a bummer, because I would have signed up immediately.

I’m using 3 great resources for these fallacy lessons:
EDIT: So, this is funny. I was just finishing up this post and publishing it when I got into a discussion with someone via Instant Message.

She was telling me how her naturopathic "doctor" gives her naturopathic "meds" like homeopathy. I asked her if maybe a bit of research was warranted, to see what the naturopath was giving her. Maybe some research would be a good thing.

That didn't go over well. She basically told me that she was happy and didn't care if there was any research behind it. She said that she knew all kinds of stuff because she had sold it at an alternative healing shop of some kind.

I mentioned that there was no science behind any of it and she retorted that she didn't care.

Then she played the ad hominem card! She said, "I don't pray at the altar of science." That didn't get a rise out of me, so then she got more personal and attacked me more directly, saying I was really hurt by my past "reiki energy" experiences.

The thing is, I wasn't hurt at all by my reiki and energy healing experiences. In fact, I made quite a bit of money and my experience was quite excellent. I stopped because I realized it was all bullshit. When I realized it only mattered that I present the "healing" with confidence to make it "successful", I got out of it because it was all a lie and therefore unethical.

Anyway, I thought it was beautiful synchronicity that this all happened right after posting about the Ad Hominem argument so I thought I'd share it with you.

Question: if someone you talk to insists on living in a fantasy world, and they basically say they're happy living in ignorance, what do you do then? Do you continue to talk to them? If you don't, there aren't many people left out there to talk to! If you do, do you just let them ramble on about their magical experiences? I'm stumped.


  1. I don't think there's any reason to stop talking to someone if they don't desire to find the truth behind anything. Its probably not worth it, to try to get them to see reality, either, though.

    If it were me, I'd let them keep talking to me about whatever they wanted, but when the subject turned to anything like the conversation you had over instant message, I probably wouldn't reply in the way that would further that conversation.

  2. Thanks Sue Nami. Good advice. I'm talking to her right this very minute. We're not talking about health care. :P

  3. I just found this page from the global atheist. I do hope you continue this series. I am looking forward to reading the rest of it.

  4. Hi Dickie Maxx, thanks for commenting. I plan on doing a whole series. I've done 4 so far. There are many more to choose from. You've inspired me to get back on track and get the rest done!

  5. [...] So, DO NOT BE, as Randi is, A FOOL! (Ad Hominem) [...]