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Sunday, September 04, 2005

Shooting the Messenger

One of the most contemptible techniques in debating is the "ad hominem" attack, where you simply ignore the substance of your opponent's argument and attack them personally. You focus on their credibility, their motives, anything that will discredit them—without addressing the points they raise.

It's far easier to blame, and often even severely punish, the messenger than to accept bad news—especially news that upsets one's view of the world. In the peakoil debate, they may even go so far as to call you a hypocrite for driving a car or being dependent on oil. Myself, I love all the things that cheap oil brings, but I am also concerned about society, global warming, the loss of biodiversity, and I want to help people think about, and begin preparing for, the future ahead.

Ideologically, we need an ecological worldview; a paradigm shift in our thinking about the world about us. There is a bit of a conundrum though: it is difficult, if almost impossible for people of one paradigm to communicate with those who perceive and reason in terms dictated by another different paradigm. We all need to be on the same page and we are not.

Many people just cannot fathom an ecological worldview based upon limits and a balance with nature; to them it would be run by environmental tree-hugging whackos or worse. Shaking their heads at any mention of a departure from their Newtonian Mechanics worldview, they insist competent people need to knock these whackos aside in order to make real progress. In disgust, they venture forth in their insipid rants of personal attacks on the bearers of reality, thinking they have somehow performed a service to mankind in the frivolous exercise of their naive arrogance.

The cornucopians believe the “free hand of the market” will ride to the rescue. We will soon tool around in our hydrogen-powered golf-carts and cars, while counting our windfall profits from investments in the “right” sectors. They offer "solutions in isolation", advocating tar sands and shale oil while ignoring greenhouse gases.

At the root of any well-thought out “doomer” position is the realization that exponential growth in a finite world is unsustainable in the first place. There are limits. We have been able to circumvent these limits for some time by exploiting a one-time gift of cheap, non-renewable fossils fuels. There is currently no alternative basket of technologies capable of being scaled up in the manner we need to replace them. This will take time. Time we do not have.

Peak oil is tomorrow in planning terms. They know this, but cannot find the facts to dispute it, nor can they show you any of their so-called “techno-fix” progress. Thus, they resort to savaging your credibility. So, next time you are in a debate and someone resorts to an ad hominem attack, it's either an admission of failure and you have won the argument, or you are bumping up against an “old school” worldview.

A worldview that they are loathe to abandon in the face of another that they cannot fathom.


Gary Malcolm said...

Mr. Meyer,

The substance of a strictly factual and limited argument should stand outside of the arena of origination. However, much like federal legislation, so many 'riders' get piggybacked onto what should be stand-alone peak oil hypotheses that one must parse all the arguments, both spoken and unspoken, very carefully.

A useful method is to understand the bases of the arguers philosophical perspective. When Dick Cheney speaks, I must weigh his Neo-Con background and his role in the Nixon administration with whatever subject he is currently addressing. His factual argument may be sound but his meaning can only be surmised by understanding the lens through which he is addressing the facts.

Ad Hominem 'attacks' may not be valid on a very focused detail but understanding the man who presents the 'fact' shines brilliant light on the Gestalt of his meaning.

Gary Malcolm

Monte L. Myers said...


Good points. Very eloquent. But, if the only argument one hears is ad hominem, then I think my case is sound. I did mention "worldview". Obviously, I consider "agendas" if known. To not, is to miss much of the message.