The Red Herring Ad Hominem
University of Florida employee Kevin Folta was recently exposed for misleading the public about his financial ties to biotechnology company Monsanto. An FOIA request of his email records demonstrated that he has received at least $25k in unrestricted gifts from the company — this after public claims of having “nothing to do with Monsanto” (here, for instance, on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast he makes such a claim at around the 3:10 mark). Now he is backpedaling and claiming that that money was not used directly for research but for ‘outreach’, so therefore he was not technically lying. Personally, I find whether he was using the funds directly for research or for flying around the country to advertise immaterial — it is clear he intended for the public to believe he had no professional relationship with Monsanto, which was untrue.
In the Twitter fray that followed this news, several commentators have suggested that pointing out Folta’s dishonesty is a commission of the ad hominem fallacy. This is, however, an inappropriate invocation of the ad hominem fallacy, and ultimately a red herring.
An argumentum ad hominem only becomes a fallacy when the character of an individual is invoked and it is irrelevant to what is at issue. If the person or some feature of the person is relevant to the issue at hand, there is no fallacy.
In the case of Folta, the issue at hand is his professional dishonesty. Examples and evidence of this dishonesty in a discussion about his dishonesty are entirely relevant. Moreover, it becomes relevant to his scientific argumentation due to the clear conflict of interest that he not only neglected to mention, but actively and aggressively denied. Conflicts of interest are serious business, and more so when one claims to be acting on behalf of the public.
When a discussion is about, or could be significantly altered by, an individual’s credibility, reliability, trustworthiness, conflicts of interest, etc., then argumentum ad hominem is not only not fallacious, but is precisely the material of relevance to the issue at hand.