Is Calling Dr. Oz a Quack an Ad Hominem Attack?

Posted on 27 Apr 2015 16:57

I'd like to speak, once again, about the confusion around the term "ad hominem." Ad hominem arguments take the form, in a simple sense, "you are wrong because you're a jerk."

That is not the same thing as saying "you are a jerk because you are wrong."

It is also not the same thing as saying that someone is a quack because they continually promote fraudulent products and make outrageously unscientific claims. This is why people call Dr. Oz a quack. It is not an ad hominem argument, but is, instead, its own assertion.

There is a fairly accepted definition of what a quack is, and many of us think that he fits the definition quite well. If we were to state our premises for why he is a quack and, based on those premises, conclude that he is a quack, then we would be making an argument, but not an ad hominem one. He promotes fraudulent products and makes outrageous and unscientific medical claims, so therefore, he is a quack.

On the other hand, if we were to say Dr. Oz is wrong about GMO because he is a quack, this would be an ad hominem argument. See the difference?

The term ad hominem means "to the person." When people use the term, however, they are referring to an ad hominem argument or the ad hominem fallacy. Calling someone a quack is not a fallacy. Responding to their viewpoint by saying they are a quack is a fallacy. In an ad hominem argument we respond to another person's argument by attacking that person directly, and using these statements as our very premises, directing our argument away from the actual statements they make. We attack them instead of their statements. It is possible that many people simply attack particular statements of Dr. Oz by saying "he is a quack."


This does not mean we are never "allowed" to say that someone is a crook, if the evidence suggests they are a crook. Let's look at a type of crook for a moment: A thief. In a court of law, we might say a person is guilty of thievery. If a prosecutor presented evidence to support the case of thievery against the defendant, he would be simply doing his job. He would be seeking to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant is a thief. However, if he were call the defendant to the stand, to cross-examine him, and denied the truth of the defendant's statements by saying, "we can't believe a word you say, you are a thief," then the defendant's counsel would be well-justified in objecting! This objection would probably hold even though the prosecutor had already referred to the defendant as a thief in his opening statement saying "This man is a thief, and I intend to prove it!"

So, you see, we can say someone is a fraud, if the evidence suggests they are a fraud. Likewise, if over-whelming evidence suggests that a doctor is a quack, we can feel quite justified in referring to that doctor as a quack. We may be called upon to provide a concrete definition of a quack, and then show how the doctor meets this definition. And although a universally accepted definition may not exist, we can categorize a quack based on certain traits and tenants.

Even the U.S. House of Representatives has a definition of a quack: "anyone who promotes medical remedies known to be false, or which are unproven, for a profit."

Most of us would probably disagree that it must be for profit. The Oxford American Dictionary defines it as "a person who falsely claims to have medical skill or to have remedies that will cure disease."

Other definitions, like some in medical dictionaries, stress the deliberateness of the act. That is, there is the possibility that certain individuals who TRULY believe what they are claiming and that their remedies will cure disease or alleviate suffering may not strictly fit the definition of a quack, because they are not deliberately misleading, although they are misleading nonetheless.

In the Encyclopedia of New Age Beliefs, John Ankerberg and John Weldon offer some other items found in standard definitions of quackery:

  • misrepresentation of diagnostic or treatment ability
  • false claims regarding experience in diagnosis and treatment
  • ignorance or dishonesty concerning medical skill
  • the practice of medicine by unlicensed individuals
  • the use of methods not generally recognized by the medical profession

Some people may accept some or all of these items. Others may offer other criteria, although not necessarily exclusive criteria. Most, I think, when speaking of Dr. Oz, are referring to the second and the last: false claims in diagnosis and treatment and the use of methods not recognized by the medical profession. We could of course be much more specific, or less.

The big problem, to me, we have with recognizing the quack is the continued insistence that it has to do with unqualified individuals misrepresenting medical skills. The truth is that a highly qualified individual in one domain, or even one area of one domain, can be display the characteristics of a 'quack' in others, especially if there is a monetary gain involved. Even in the earliest days of quackery, and anti-quackery, many were legally licensed to practice medicine.

Ironically, the responses to the resent letter by 10 doctors to Columbia University Medical School urging that Dr. Oz be removed from the faculty there were ad hominem attacks, with folks calling the doctors sleazebags and attacking their character to "prove their wrongness."

Once again, critical thinking is not a set of moral codes that allow fraudsters to "get out of jail free" because we are forced to be not only fair, but outright accepting of even the most egregious malfeasance, lest we be seen as emotional or over-invested. A quack is a quack because he behaves like a quack.

If you would like to explore the history of quacks and quackery in depth, I recommend Quack Medicine: A History of Combating Health Fraud in Twentieth-century America by Eric Boyle.

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This page created 27 Apr 2015 16:57
Last updated 20 Apr 2016 14:26

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