Ad hominem is contextual.

Daniel Kuehn, a frequent commenter on this blog, defends Senator Barbara Boxer’s questioning of who funds the Institute for Energy Research, the organization under whose auspices Bob Murphy testified on Thursday.

His general point is that it’s legitimate to point out who funds research and who funds testimony and articles. I agree with him wholeheartedly and I think he said it well.

However, he badly misses the point in this context.

Before getting to that, I’ll point out that I “walk the talk.” A number of years ago, a fairly well-known economist I respect was consulting for a Fortune 500 company. Call the company “A.” A wanted to merge with B and the federal government was putting roadblocks in the way. I favored, you probably won’t be surprised to know, allowing A to merge with B. This economist, who knew I was on a roll at the time with the Wall Street Journal, writing 5 to 6 op/eds a year for them, asked me if I would write an op/ed for the Journal arguing that A should be allowed to merge with B. “Sure,” I said. “And, in return,” he said, “A is willing to pay you $2,500.” For those of you who don’t know, this is a multiple of the price that the Journal typically pays for op/eds, at least in my experience. “I’m guessing that you don’t want me to tell the Journal that I’m being paid,” I said. “That’s right,” he said, “there would be no point.” “OK,” I said, “then my answer is no.”

Now back to the Boxer context. In making his case, Daniel writes:

I agree (on both counts – that it’s fine to take money from energy companies and military contractors and that it’s important to know where you’re getting money to do research) and I think it’s a big mistake for people to treat this like some kind of cheap-shot from Boxer.

That’s where Daniel loses me. Why? Two reasons. The less-important one is, as I pointed out, that that was all Boxer had. She showed no interest in the content of Bob’s testimony and didn’t challenge any of it. The only thing she showed any interest in was who funded him.

The more-important one is that Boxer’s treatment was not symmetric. She showed zero interest in the funding of any of the people whom the Democratic side invited to testify. That’s what makes it a cheap shot.

Interestingly, as Bob Murphy points out and as Daniel admits in the comments on his post, he had originally written the post to say as follows:

Sen. Barbara Boxer raised the issue of the funding sources behind IER (Bob’s organization) as well as the other witnesses

Interestingly also, in admitting his mistake, Daniel writes:

Presumably this is something that matters for anyone to her, but I added “Republican” – in any case it wouldn’t be wrong to add Republican, so why not 🙂

That’s mistaken. This presumption doesn’t follow it all. As I noted, and as Bob noted and Daniel admitted, Barbara Boxer didn’t show any interest in the funding sources of the witnesses on the Democratic side. Moreover, not only wouldn’t it be wrong to add “Republican,” which, to his credit, he did, but more important, it would be wrong not to. When he wrote “the other witnesses,” he leads people to think that he means “the other witnesses,” not “some other witnesses” or “the other Republican witnesses.” (By the way, there was only one other witness on the Republican side, my friend Diana Furchtgott-Roth, whose testimony was also excellent.)

Here’s my guess: If you go through every question Senator Boxer has ever asked in the last, say, 10 years, you will find her asking about funding sources of witnesses on her side less than 10% of the time.