Ad Hominem Fallacy: A Lesson for Sea World

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As someone who has spent the past decade advocating for people to think critically, which includes being able to identify and avoid logical fallacies, I’ve often seen people misuse logical fallacy labels. Probably the most misused that I see is the ad hominem fallacy, which is supposed to refer to an argument that is based on attacking a person rather than the argument they’re making. But I often see people mistakenly identify an ad hominem fallacy when it’s just an ad hominem attack: basically, it’s the difference between saying, “You’re wrong and you’re an asshole” and “You’re wrong because you’re an asshole.”

That’s why it’s so nice that Sea World has stepped forward to give us a really good example of an ad hominem fallacy in their response to former orca trainer John Hargrove, who is featured in the documentary Blackfish and who just published a book of his recollections of seeing orcas abused in various ways at the theme park.

The abuse culminated in one orca violently murdering a Sea World trainer, which eventually led to Hargrove leaving and working with activists trying to educate people about the plight of the large whales.

Sea World could respond by showing a track record of, say, keeping mothers and their calves together as they would be in the wild, or not breeding them at very young ages, or giving them sufficient room to move around in, similar to what they experience in the wild. Which, of course, would be difficult because that would require an entire, actual sea and it’s kind of hard to sell tickets to the Pacific Ocean.

They can’t and won’t do those things, so they’re hitting back with a big fat ad hominem attack: they’ve released video of Hargrove drunkenly using the racial epithet known as “the n-word.”

That’s not all, though! SeaWorld also funded a new website called RealJohnHargrove where someone posts articles with shocking facts, like showing that even though Hargrove finally retired from SeaWorld on disability due to pain from injuries incurred while working with whales, he went snowboarding once in 2013.

They also point out that on a panel, Hargrove once said he was in “the industry” for 19 years, when in fact according to Sea World he had only been in the industry for 14 years.



These responses don’t even come close to addressing his actual arguments against SeaWorld. They’re ad hominem attacks, and when presented as and taken as reason to disbelieve him, they represent an ad hominem fallacy. Gawker fell for it hook, line, and sinker (sorry for the pun), writing that “being caught screaming and repeating racial slurs does plenty to discredit yourself.” But that’s not true. It would discredit him, if his argument had anything to do with black people as opposed to black fish. But guess what? Even racist pieces of shit can work at Sea World for 14 years and correctly identify problems in the industry.

Being wrong about whether you were in the industry for 14 or 19 years doesn’t mean you’ll be wrong about the psychological state of the animals you cared for every day. And going snowboarding despite an injury doesn’t mean….anything. It means absolutely nothing. Jesus Christ, Sea World, you could at least try.

Drop the ad hominems, and then drop the orca business, too.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. Not to take away from the actual content of the piece, but I did want to note how you’ve upped your game. The production quality on your videos just keeps getting better. Glad I’m a part of that! The motion graphics in this were really cool, I’m digging the camera placement and professional-looking lighting and make-up. Kudos!

  2. This is the exact same tactic that the Church of Scientology uses to deflect any criticisms made by former Scientologists – most recently in response to the documentary Going Clear. They released a series of essays and videos viciously attacking the people who appeared in the video, accusing them of crimes ranging from “being an attorney who is paid by the hour” to “used to be a prostitute” to “maybe killed his wife? Who knows!… (But he did it).”

  3. Rebecca Watson,

    One problem is, the whole “Orca Business” is their business. Its probably one of the most profitable parts of their business which explains why they’re so determined to destroy him.

  4. Well, if Officer Fuhrman’s vocabulary gets O.J. Simpson a walk, Sea World can’t be blamed too much for giving it a try.

  5. About 95% of the time, when people accuse someone of an adhominem attack, it is not.

    A couple of days ago I pointed out that the ‘surprising facts’ being presented by a ‘researcher’ on the California drought situation are not worth considering because the guy is a paid shill for the California almond farmers. AD HOMINEM folk shout, but no, it is not.

    The ad hominem fallacy is limited to the argument ‘X says Y, X is a bad person, therefore Y is false’.

    If we are looking at a set of claims that are being asserted as fact, being able to show that a person has lied about one claim means that we can probably ignore all the rest of the claims they make. Similarly, if someone is being paid to advance a certain position, it is not an ad hominem attack to point this out.

    If the only support for the claim Z is a source that is known to be unreliable, we should consider the truth value of Z to be unknown. It is still a fallacy to decide that the truth value is false of course, unless that is we have other evidence.

    In this case it does appear to be a rare example of an actual ad hominem. Hargrove left the industry for five years so Sea World’s claim that he is a liar boils down to the distinction between time elapsed since he started in the industry and time in the industry. One five minute cell phone video is not sufficient to establish that someone is a habitual drunk.

    1. I find that people think of fallacies in strict black and white (see what I did there) terms, when in fact the fallacy lies in an area of nuance. If I say 97% of climate scientists agree that human caused global warming is happening, is that an appeal to authority? Sure, but it’s not fallacious, it’s relying on expert opinion in an area in which I cannot possibly hope to have as much knowledge and understanding as those experts.

      Then there’s the slippery slope. It ceases to be fallacious if you’ve actually shown that there’s good cause to believe that sliding down the slope will be the actual outcome.

      Similarly, with ad hominem, it is perfectly reasonable to consider the credibility of the claimant and pointing out a conflict of interest is decidedly not fallacious. I’m not sure I agree entirely with this: “being able to show that a person has lied about one claim means that we can probably ignore all the rest of the claims they make.” That’s probably going a bit too far and does verge on ad hominem. Everyone lies. Everyone also confabulates. To show that it’s a reason to ignore claims you’ve got to have more than one lie, you’ve got to have a pattern of willful dishonesty. In a formal debate, of course, it’s pretty reasonable to point out a false statement, give the opponent a chance to explain themselves, and if they double down, then you can ignore the rest of their claims. But it’s not that clear cut in the real world.

      I guess the distinction, in all these cases, between a fallacy and a reasonable argument is having evidence and solid reasoning behind the argument.

  6. Man, I really just don’t know how to feel about Sea World. I’ve been pretty anti Sea World since I was a teenager and did a backstage tour. About the same time I heard arguments about how it’s cruel to keep whales and dolphins in captivity. But on that tour I saw the tanks the orcas actually lived in when not doing shows, and yeah, it was a no-brainer that those tanks were absurdly small to hold an animal like that. Then there was the dolphin petting tank, which one would not think was big enough for one dolphin, let alone the huge number that are in there. At the same time, I’ve always had friends who worked for Sea World doing shows (though the only animal trainers I knew were bird trainers), and to this day they all say the animals are well treated and cared for and they all say Blackfish is a very distorted view.

    So last time I was in Orlando, I took my kids to Sea World and they had a pretty great time. And the park is a lot better than it used to be. That cramped dolphin tank is gone, replaced with one where the dolphins can move around a lot more. But still, these are animals that range across miles of open ocean every day in the wild. I’m pretty sure this captivity can’t be good for the individual animals. But I also think Sea World does pretty good things for our understanding of marine life and for the protection of marine mammals in the wild (maybe). Meanwhile, I’ve avoided actually watching Blackfish because I’m pretty convinced that documentaries are simply too emotionally manipulative and edited in general. It’s incredibly difficult to watch a documentary and carefully weigh the arguments on both sides. And I don’t need to be convinced that these are smart animals and that this kind of captivity is just not good for them or that the fact that they look like they’re “smiling” doesn’t mean they’re happy.

    I don’t really plan to go to Sea World again. Once for the kids was enough. But I can’t rule it out. And if I go to the Indianapolis Zoo, which has a dolphin tank and show, is that just as bad?

  7. Normally, I’m of the “I love animals, therefore I hate animal rights activists.” crew, but…I make an exception for Sea World. Sea World is one of the worst, most unnecessary, abuses of animals I’ve seen. To quote Gladiator, are you not entertained?

    By the way, has anyone else seen their greenwashing ad? As if “They live longer here than they do in the wild.” is anything other than faint praise. (Hint: Most animals die young in the wild. That’s how evolution works!)

    1. Not only is the “live longer here than in the wild” thing faint praise, it is, as far as I can tell, blatantly false. There’s some argument around this, and of course a lot of it comes from Sea World, but I really haven’t found much to challenge that orcas have extremely long lifespans, and none in captivity has ever matched Granny, at approximately 103. While Granny is exceptional, it would seem that the oldest orca in captivity is about at the average wild lifespan.

  8. Thats how PR departments work, no matter that you worked loyally for 14 years, or that your history fully backs your claims, that can all be swept away by one phrase that you said in the past.

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