Argumentum ad hominem is a cool Latin phrase I read in a book called “How to win every argument – the use and abuse of logic”. The book is written by Madsen Pirie and while I don’t know if it is still in print, I do know its on the shelf at the Chattswood Library in Sydney.
The concept is that I will attack an argument by attacking its source (speaker). So rather than saying I disagree with Fred because of a flaw in his argument, I either
- Explain that Fred is a bit of a wally and therefore not to be trusted in this matter. The natural conclusion is therefore that we should ignore what he is saying; or
- I say that Fred is not one of us. All people of a certain grouping (say agile project managers) believe that xyz, which is not what Fred is saying, so as agile project managers we should ignore him and believe (my argument).
The problem with the approach is that I have not assessed or commented on the quality of the point Fred is making, but rather distracted the group from doing so.
This turns out to be a great way to trick people if you want to be evil:
- As Australians we must believe that … (never mind why)
- Fred is from management, so of course he would say … (never mind if it makes sense)
- Waterfall projects are stupid and agile/lean/kanban projects are much better, so we must … (never mind why)
I have noticed a lot of people recently saying we should not do x because it is a waterfall approach to projects or we must do y because that is the agile approach.
The problem, as you can probably perceive, is that “waterfall projects” are not people and so “argumentum ad hominem” does not apply. So I have invented a new term “argumentum ad waterfallium”.
Now if you are evil, you have a Latin (ish) term to apply to what you are doing.
Also – if you hear someone say “that was how things worked in waterfall so we can’t do it” or “In agile projects you need to have user stories so we need to …” you can respond automatically with “Waterfallias Argumentum ad”.
When they ask “What on earth do you mean by that?” – you can respond with “exactly what I am asking you”.
More widely though – you will often hear people in the workshops you run say that some must happen because “the CEO said it” or not happen because “that was the old way” or “that is what management want us to think”.
When you hear this (or do it yourself) remember – the source of the argument may make us question the motives for the argument but they do not impact the quality or the logic of the argument.
So whenever anyone uses this technique stop and ask them why they disagree with the argument. You will often find that they struggle to answer that question without reverting to talking about the person rather than the argument. Which means they are probably not considering the argument at all.