The Problem with Bad Arguments

Here are three informal fallacies that people use when making arguments. And while these fallacies might sound impressive, they actually make for bad argumentation:

  • An ad hominem argument in one in which, instead of attacking someone’s actual argument, you attack them personally (i.e. you attack some aspect about them in an attempt to either change the subject or to somehow ‘weaken’ their argument).
  • Cherry picking is when you point out individual cases or data that confirm your position while ignoring others that may contradict that position.
  • An association fallacy (sometimes called guilt by association argument) is one in which you make a hasty generalization about something or someone based on an irrelevant association. (This is similar to stereotyping.)

How These Fallacies Get Used

Telstra’s Rod Bruem recently published a blog post called ‘Professor Gives Business School a Bad Name’ in which he uses all three of these fallacies to make his point.

For example, he claims that:

  • (A) Professor Paul Kerin hates Telstra and that he makes “silly” suggestions about what Telstra should do.
  • (B) Kerin is a “highly paid ‘Professorial Fellow’” at Melbourne Business School.


  • (C) Under no circumstances should anyone study at MBS because who knows “what on earth is being taught” there.

Here is where the fallacies come into play in Bruem’s blog post:

  • Instead of actually arguing against the points that Kerin makes in his articles, Bruem calls Kerin’s arguments silly and half-baked; says that Kerin hates Telstra; and then uses the poisoning the well tactic when he sarcastically calls Kerin an “esteemed academic” and then compares Kerin’s proposals to those that would be “acceptable in Hugo Chavez's Venezuela”. All of this is argument ad hominem.
  • Bruem has also cherry picked only those articles of Kerin’s that support his argument. Other articles Kerin has written (and there are many of them!) that might show Kerin to be an accomplished economist, strategist, and business thinker are ignored.
  • Finally, Bruem makes a hasty generalization that leads him to condemn, by association, all of Melbourne Business School for the opinions that Kerin has on the topic of Telstra. Apparently, because Kerin “publicly preaches such hollow views in the media” and is a Professorial Fellow at MBS, all of the professors at MBS must preach their own similarly hollow views in the classroom thereby making MBS a terrible place of learning.

(Funnily enough, Bruem’s association fallacy argument has the opposite effect on me because, instead of thinking: “Oh no! A professor at MBS has a strong opinion, I must therefore stay away from this business school”, I find myself thinking: “Cool. Having an opinionated professor means they probably have some awesome classroom discussions at MBS so I really should look into this place some more.”)

So what was the point of Bruem’s article? I think he really just wanted to vent about Kerin and couldn’t think of an angle to take. That’s when MBS came into the picture because it helped him frame his argument. Indeed, MBS is used only as a lead-in and lead-out for Bruem’s rant about Kerin.

Also, a headline like ‘Kerin is Clueless About Telstra’ would have made the blog post sound a lot less impressive.

Please Make Good Arguments

I have no issues with people ranting about someone whose ideas they believe to be wrong or even “silly” [1]. That said, rants are not meant to be taken seriously; indeed, they’re often mean to be funny. I don’t think Bruem’s post was meant to be funny and he didn’t intend it to be a rant. In that case, you have to analyze it as if it’s a proper argument – which it was not.

My point, then, is that if you’re going to make an argument, please address the topics you actually have issues with instead of arguing ad hominem. Also, don’t bring irrelevant points to the table because they just waste time.

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[1] I was almost tempted to call this blog post ‘Blogger Gives Telco a Bad Name’ and make this into a rant myself…but then we wouldn’t have gotten anywhere, would we?