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October 25, 2018   5 mins

In the wild-west days of the internet – in the unimaginably dim and distant past, probably about 2004 – everyone used to argue all the time about whether or not God was real.

In retrospect it seems kind of ridiculous that we thought we’d settle an argument as old as humanity in a three-hour flame-war on the Guardian Unlimited Talkboards. But we tried. Oh, how we tried. It was the glorious summer of New Atheism and, waving our flaming swords and our copies of The God Delusion, the Skeptics (with a K) would do daily battle with our hated foes, the Creationists. Or, if they were busy that day, the Homeopaths. In a way it was a great and positive thing, because everyone on both sides always thought they’d won.

One of the things we would regularly do, which looking back was extraordinarily smug and patronising, was to categorise our opponents’ logical errors. “Begging the question!” we would tell people when they argued that we should believe in God because the Bible said so, and should believe the Bible because it was the word of God. “Straw man!” we would yell at people who said that evolutionists thought humans arose through random chance.

And “argumentum ad hominem!”, we would say, when someone attacked the person making the argument, rather than the argument itself.

It turns out, though, that smugly pointing out people’s logical errors for the better part of the mid-2000s didn’t stop them making them. I say this because the ad hominem argument seems (in my admittedly subjective experience) more common than ever. We seem to spend an awful lot of time looking to show that the person making an argument is bad, rather than trying to show that the argument itself is.

Would a new, centrist, anti-Brexit party be any good? No need to think about the electoral maths: we can simply point out that Tony Blair supports it, so it’s bad. Does a piece about biological differences between men and women make any good points? No need to read it: we can simply point out that it’s in Quillette, so it’s bad.

There’s a term that I dislike but which is widely used in these situations, “cancelled”: when a person, thing, concept or organisation has done a sufficient number of bad things or expressed a sufficient number of bad opinions, that person, thing, concept or organisation is cancelled. It seems to be a relatively new use of the word, going back to the early 2000s or so. But the concept is ancient: Greg Jenner, the historian, likens it to “damnatio memoriae”, a punishment the Roman senate passed on traitors to the state, calling for the memory of that person to be expunged. The person is to be deprived of attention, given no more airtime.

When someone has been cancelled, it doesn’t matter whether the arguments they make are worth listening to. You can ignore their arguments because they are bad. That is, essentially, the argumentum ad hominem taken to its logical extreme.

I should admit that this isn’t always a bad idea. For all that we used to accuse people of the “logical fallacy” of argumentum ad hominem (or its inverse, the argument from authority), it isn’t a fallacy. Knowing who is making an argument does indeed give you information about the argument they are making; not perfect information, but some.

If I were to hear two people make arguments about the impact of climate change, and one of them was an professor of atmospheric physics who had worked on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and published many widely cited papers in well-respected journals, and the other was a English Literature graduate who wrote angry columns about climate change being a scam and had received money from the Koch brothers, then – knowing nothing about the arguments themselves – it would be entirely reasonable for me to put more weight on the first person’s claims. Their credentials make it more likely that they know what they are talking about.

But it only really matters when you don’t know or can’t follow the arguments. If the English Lit graduate had provided a detailed, plausible argument, with references, and the atmospheric physicist had made poorly argued and unlikely claims with no sources, then it doesn’t matter that she has a PhD and he doesn’t – if I am able to follow the arguments in their technical detail myself, then I should believe the former, not the latter. Otherwise, I really am failing, committing the sin of ad hominem.

And that has repercussions. Everyone has been cancelled by someone. I was declared cancelled once by some guy I didn’t know on Twitter (I probably deserved it). There are so many people, so many groups, such a whirling, swirling morass of opinions on social media, that it doesn’t take much to get cancelled. The New York Times notes that Bill Gates, who has a strong case for being declared the greatest philanthropist in human history, has been declared cancelled, as has the impeccably right-on and polite Chris Evans (the superhero actor, not the Radio 2 guy or the editor of the Telegraph).

If you’re looking for a reason to discount someone’s arguments (and we all are, all the time), then you can find it. And there’ll always be someone, somewhere, who thinks you shouldn’t pay attention to someone else, and it only takes a few dozen people making a lot of noise on Twitter to make it look as though there’s a huge groundswell of opinion.

I don’t know if it really is more common, these days. But it feels as though it is. We are all constantly hunting for reasons to disbelieve our opponents. People concerned about immigration changing their communities are racists, so we don’t have to listen to them. People who think Trump ought to be impeached for fraud are Democrats, so they’re just being partisan. But where we can, we ought to be arguing against the arguments themselves. Assume that the person making them is doing so in good faith, and try to counter them, rather than dismissing them on your assessment of the author’s motives and interests.

There are a couple of reasons why people might disagree with that, and they’re good ones. One, judging an argument by the arguer can save a lot of time. If I had to carefully read every Breitbart article before deciding on its merits, I’d spend a lot of my life reading a load of angry half-baked nativist crap which I’d end up ignoring anyway. There does come a threshold when someone really is cancelled.

And two, ‘judge arguments on merit’ can be a code for ‘the white guys like me who write everything now can carry on doing so, and there’s no need to try to represent underprivileged groups because we should judge the arguments on merit, not who makes them’.

These are fair points. On the first, I suppose I’d argue that there’s a big difference between, say, Steven Pinker and Steve Bannon: Steven Pinker is a brilliant and wise academic with impeccable liberal credentials; Steve Bannon is a borderline fascist. I can understand people demanding that the Economist or the New Yorker not provide Bannon with a platform. But I’ve seen people trying to discount arguments because Steven Pinker is associated with them, and that feels like we’re setting our ‘cancellation’ threshold too low.

On the second, I’d say we ought to still judge the arguments on merit – ‘Britain is a relatively non-racist society compared to most of Europe’ is either a true statement or a false one, regardless of whether a white person or a black person says it – but that female, minority ethnic and LGBT representation in the media is important in its own right.

We never did win the war against the Creationists, probably partly because we were unbearable smug young tossers who pointed out logical fallacies on internet message boards. But we did have a point, I think. Arguing against arguments, not people, is still the correct thing to do.

Tom Chivers is a science writer. His second book, How to Read Numbers, is out now.