What is addiction? How does it work? How do we end it? These are hotly debated issues, and logical fallacies run rampant in the big addiction debate. In this series of posts, I will endeavor to give examples of as many known logical fallacies used in the addiction debate as possible. My reasons for this are simple: what you think and believe about addiction is the most important factor in whether or not you will struggle with it. So here we go:
#1 Ad Hominem
An ad hominem argument is when someone attacks the person making a point, or the source cited to make a point, rather than examining the point itself. At its most basic, an Ad Hominem argument is simple name-calling or mudslinging, and I don’t think I need to bring up the really nasty stuff here – you can read through the comments section on any major media article discussing 12-step programs to witness that. What’s important is that it’s an attempt to negate the validity of a claim by attacking the person who supports or presents the claim in some way – it’s a distraction from the point. Now this may not be as recognizable when the particular Ad Hominem in use is less muddy than usual, but it’s still there.
This fallacy is constantly used in discussions about addiction, most often in the form of “you’re not a real addict (or real alcoholic)”(which isn’t really a negative characteristic to an outsider of the recovery culture – but to an insider, being a real addict or alcoholic holds some serious cred or prestige). I witnessed this in a thread on the web’s most popular recovery themed message board. Karl, who started the discussion, quoted a website which essentially said that addiction is not a disease and we may be stripping people of the power to choose by teaching them that their problems are due to disease. In response to this point, someone said of Karl:
Karl, if you’re the guy I’m thinking about then weren’t you an extremely light drinker?
To have those thoughts and to chastise others about how easy it’s been to quit – perhaps you’re not an alcoholic and have little understanding of the problems that people on this site face in day to day life in their struggle with alcohol.
Translation: You’re not a real alcoholic, so you couldn’t possibly be correct about this. The fallacious argument was repeated by others:
Sure we all have choices on what we put into our body, but until you experience the power of addiction you cannot judge what it is (not you poster,but others) and the only power BIG enough to cure it, IMO is your HP and support of fellow alcoholics
This is exactly the point, SoberKarl. For the real alcoholic, all those ‘shoulds’ will be of absolutely no avail for staying sober.
Notice how the actual issue brought up as a topic of discussion (whether or not the disease belief is helpful or harmful psychologically) is completely sidestepped by disqualifying the views of anyone who isn’t a real alcoholic. It’s simply assumed to be wrong on the grounds that you can only know the truth of the disease concept if you’ve been a real alcoholic, and anyone who is a real alcoholic knows it’s true, and anyone who says otherwise, must not be a real alcoholic.
I get the “you’re not a real addict” attack all of the time in hate mail and online comments. I could defend myself against that charge – with an “I’ve spilled more heroin than you ever saw” sort of thing – but that would be granting undue validity to their fallacious argument. It doesn’t matter if you’re a real alcoholic, space alien, or a being of artificial intelligence: your claims about a fact of life should be examined on their merits, and not on who you are. What if I were a mass murderer, and I stated that 2+2=4 – should this claim be dismissed because I’m a bad person? Or should it be dismissed because I’m not a degreed mathematician?
It’s not that the experience of people who’ve had substance use problems is totally irrelevant to general discussions of addiction – it’s extremely relevant. However, when the specific point raised is “this may not be a disease”, or “this disease idea may be causing more harm than good” then that point should be discussed on its own merits.
#2 Ad Hominem Tu Quoque
Tu Quoque literally translates to “you also.” This is another form of Ad Hominem in which hypocrisy is directly asserted, and the assumption is, since you haven’t acted in accordance with this view yourself, then it must be wrong. The above retorts to Karl border on this, but this next reply really does it:
While you are entitled to your point of view and are free to express it, once again it comes down to a person with zero demonstrated track record of staying sober espousing their theories about how this thing works.
I’ve learned, in my years of peaceful and contented sobriety, to not give much weight to ideas about sobriety from people who aren’t sober.
Elsewhere, political affiliations have often brought up against critics of the disease model of addiction – Sally Satel can’t be correct because she’s conservative, Stanton Peele can’t be correct because he’s a liberal. On top of this, the real addict nonsense is thrown these people’s way. Political views are interesting, but they don’t preclude you from being able to utter a sound argument about the nature of addiction.
In short, in the ad hominem, some irrelevant fact about the claimant is held up as proof that their claim is untrue. It’s the lowest, most irrational, and most commonly used logical fallacy in the addiction debate.