“Let Your Creativity Soar,” the panel discussion led by Mariette DiChristina, was a great article, but I think the experts are a little bit off when they address society’s perception of creativity. “Artist” and “creative” are not equivalent. I do not believe Western society has a negative perception of creativity; rather there is a negative perception of financial instability and destructive behavior. It happens that artists and musicians can fall into such states. So although parents may steer their child away from painting or writing as a profession, they probably would encourage their child’s creativity in science, computer programming or marketing, all of which can be extremely creative fields.
adapted from a comment at www.SciAmMind.com
It is disturbing that psychologist David C. Geary of the University of Missouri–Columbia, quoted in Nicole Branan’s “She Never Forgets a Face” [Head Lines], assumes that conflict and competition constitute the evolutionary mechanism that resulted in women’s superior recognition of faces. Geary would benefit from reading women’s psychology researchers such as Judith Jordan and Jean Baker Miller. Women’s social interaction has been shown repeatedly to utilize collaboration over conflict. Face recognition would be a vital tool in that process. I fear “collaboration blindness” by male politicians and business leaders as well as scientists has led us down a narrow path to aggression and, ultimately, violence. I am disappointed that Branan did not include this alternative interpretation.
Mary Ellen Bluntzer
AD HOMINEM ARGUMENTS
I read Yvonne Raley’s article “Character Attacks” [Perspectives] with great interest. Thank you for a thoughtfully reasoned and carefully stated presentation.
The ad hominem fallacy sweeps through our social and political lives so pervasively that it is taken for granted, not as a fallacy but as a tool of discrimination. Issues, arguments and positions in economics and politics are so complicated and so easily misrepresented that I fear that those who bother to vote or even to ponder their views on biofuels, power in the Middle East, farm subsidies, the war on drugs, cabbages and kings all too often surrender in desperation to the questions “Who advocates this?” and “Who opposes this?”
Martin Luther King appealed to us to judge people not by the color of their skin but by “the content of their character.” And isn’t this just what we do when we endorse or contest an idea based on the identity of its advocate? We endorse the content of the character of our chosen advocate and hope for the best. In a way, the representative form of democracy implemented in the U.S. institutionalizes the ad hominem by asking candidates to win our trust and then be allowed to vote on our behalf in the various legislative houses of government.
This is not to say that I applaud this state of affairs. Even if the ad hominem is inescapable, we should apply it knowingly. I took delight in reading Raley’s biographical note at the end of the article: “... she teaches critical reasoning, among other subjects.” I have long felt that my high school years would have been better spent with only two subjects: critical reasoning and project management. How to think for yourself and how to get something done. Learn everything else in context of a project, at least before college. Maybe that would not work for everyone, but I cannot think of a more urgently needed skill than critical reasoning in these times. Or any times.
Raley makes two category errors in her article. Attributing poor lawn care to a neighbor’s political persuasion is not an ad hominem argument. Rather it is an example of what social psychologists call “attribution theory,” in which the same behavior is interpreted differently depending on who is doing it. For example, if I overeat, I am likely to attribute the behavior to tasty food (self-attribution), whereas if I see my overweight neighbor doing the same, I think he has no willpower (other attribution). Moreover, the attributions mentioned by Raley are not personal but sociological in nature and hence not the personal attacks meant by ad hominem—literally “against the person.”
The second category error concerns the example of the doctor. Not following our fat doctor’s advice to lose weight is what a previous generation of social psychologists working within a persuasive communication paradigm called “the source effect.” When given information, we tend to accept or reject the information based on whom we think it is coming from. For example, if we learn that Osama bin Laden says giving charity is an important God-commanded activity, we are much less likely to agree (and give charity) than if we hear the exact same phrase from our local clergy.
Source effects concern the reliability of the provider of the information, not the information itself. They are different from ad hominem attacks in that they concern the impact on the listener, not his rhetorical and illegitimate personal counterattack on the speaker.
Sackler School of Medicine, Tel Aviv University
RALEY REPLIES: Abramovitch suggests there are two category mistakes in my essay. The term “category mistake” comes from Gilbert Ryle’s 1949 book The Concept of Mind (University of Chicago Press). Ryle’s famous example is of a person asking, after having been shown the buildings and offices of a university, “But where is the university?” His mistake is to think that the university is the same kind of entity as the buildings and offices of the university.
Abramovitch thinks that my example of the neighbor’s lawn care belongs to the category of attribution theory—a theory concerned with the motivations we attribute to others and how these differ from the motivations we attribute to ourselves. Therefore, he argues, the example is not an ad hominem. Although Abramovitch is right to point to attribution theory as an explanation for the example, this does not preclude its being an ad hominem. Abramovitch offers an explanation for why the speaker said what he did. In contrast, I offer an analysis of the logic of what the speaker said. Abramovitch’s analysis is descriptive (it describes what motivates the speaker), whereas mine is normative (it deals with the reasoning errors in the argument). There are explanations for a particular act of speech (the buildings and offices in Ryle’s example), but there are also the logical analyses thereof (universities). Neither precludes the other.
Apart from this, Abramovitch construes “ad hominem” too narrowly. Although the Latin ad hominem is translated as “against the person,” the concept of ad hominem is broader than that, as is generally the case with Latin terminology when employed in the sciences. One would be confused if one tried to understand the contemporary usage of Tyrannosaurus rex by reading the Latin literally (“tyrant lizard”). No more does every ad hominem have to involve a direct accusation—it just has to unfairly discredit the individual.
Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "Letters".