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Poisoning the Well

(also known as: discrediting, smear tactics)

Description: To commit a preemptive ad hominem attack against an opponent.  That is, to prime the audience with adverse information about the opponent from the start, in an attempt to make your claim more acceptable or discount the credibility of your opponent’s claim.

Logical Form:

Adverse information (be it true or false) about person 1 is presented.

Therefore, the claim(s) of person 1 will be false.

Example #1:

Tim: Boss, you heard my side of the story why I think Bill should be fired and not me.  Now, I am sure Bill is going to come to you with some pathetic attempt to weasel out of this lie that he has created.

Explanation: Tim is poisoning the well by priming his boss by attacking Bill’s character, and setting up any defense Bill might present as “pathetic”.  Tim is using this fallacious tactic here, but if the boss were to accept Tim’s advice about Bill, she would be committing the fallacy.

Example #2:

I hope I presented my argument clearly.  Now, my opponent will attempt to refute my argument by his own fallacious, incoherent, illogical version of history.

Explanation: Not a very nice setup for the opponent.  As an audience member, if you allow any of this “poison” to affect how you evaluate the opponent’s argument, you are guilty of fallacious reasoning.

Exception: Remember that if a person states facts relevant to the argument, it is not an ad hominem attack.  In the first example, if the other “poison” were left out, no fallacy would be committed.

Tim: Boss, you heard my side of the story why I think Bill should be fired and not me.  Now, I am sure Bill is going to come to you with his side of the story, but please keep in mind that we have two witnesses to the event who both agree that Bill was the one who told the client that she had ugly children.

References:

Walton, D. (1998). Ad Hominem Arguments. University of Alabama Press.



Registered User Comments

Michael Hurst
Monday, August 19, 2019 - 10:58:27 AM
When something is written that makes claims that are dubious or nebulous, or even false, is it poisoning the well to point out the background point of view of the author? For example, if Fox News makes the following statement: "The people of this country love capitalism and hate socialism", is it poisoning the well to point out the hard-right ideological foundation of the network and its owner?

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Bo Bennett, PhD
Monday, August 19, 2019 - 11:13:03 AM
This is arguable and context dependent. If one is criticizing one's arguments, and points out their political leanings to an audience that would see this as a negative, this is likely to be fallacious. However, in your example, it seems that no arguments are being made rather it might be the ramblings of political commentator, in which case, pointing out their political leanings may not be fallacious or at least not as fallacious.

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Michael Hurst
Monday, August 19, 2019 - 12:57:01 PM
@Bo Bennett, PhD: Thanks.

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former student
Thursday, February 28, 2019 - 12:28:06 PM
Replying to a post re an example of a social media site showing blatant double standards in its application of terms of service by its moderation department:

"Do you want to tell me that they actually occasionally bother to read moderation appeals, at all? Wow, that’s news. I’ve never had a successful appeal to a post deleted by moderation, which is why I kind of stopped writing on cesspool topics in here."

Is that an example of the poisoning the well logical fallacy? If not, it must be some kind of logical fallacy, and I'd like to know which.

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Bo Bennett, PhD
Thursday, February 28, 2019 - 12:32:46 PM
If this statement was part of an argument about the legitimacy of the moderators or the forum, then yes, this would be an example of poisoning the well. However, if it was just an isolated comment, then it would be more of someone just sharing his or her opinion.

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former student
Thursday, February 28, 2019 - 12:37:34 PM
@Bo Bennett, PhD: OK, thank you.

I believe the first sentence in the post was deep sarcasm, and the second sentence was an attempt to denigrate or smear a topic that for whatever reason the poster does not like being criticised or even discussed, in an attempt to smear even discussion of that topic, and to deter the reader from discussing that topic again, preemptively.

Can you guess what the topic was, by the way?

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Bo Bennett, PhD
Thursday, February 28, 2019 - 12:46:03 PM
@Jaime Morris: Logical fallacies?

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former student
Thursday, February 28, 2019 - 12:48:45 PM
@Bo Bennett, PhD: Ha ha, good one. I'll give you a clue. What topic has the death penalty in a certain ideology for even mild and factual criticism of it?

That's rhetorical, by the way.

Of all the topics in the modern era, it is this one that produces the most logical fallacies by the West's media to appease, placate and pander to it.

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Appleblade
Friday, November 02, 2018 - 11:06:37 AM
I think it's a mistake to limit Poisoning the Well to impugning personal sources (ad hominem) ... I think it is more just impugning some source of information and saying you can't trust that source (you can't drink that water! I came from the poison well!). While isn't not a fallacy to conclude that the water from the poison well is probably poisonous, it is a fallacy to say, 'Well, that information came from wikipedia (or FoxNews, or MSNBC, etc.), so it's not trustworthy.' The source might make you suspicious of the information, but it's not logically determinative.

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Bo Bennett, PhD
Friday, November 02, 2018 - 11:09:16 AM
There's a great fallacy for that already... the Genetic Fallacy: https://www.logicallyfallacious.com/tools/lp/Bo/LogicalFallacies/99/Genetic-Fallacy

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Joe Walker
Saturday, January 21, 2017 - 01:42:13 PM
I think that the Media and Trump do this to each other all of time. To avoid being a part of the fallacy, I am suppose to disregard the derogatory language that they use against each other. But, what if one side where true but the other side was false, how would handle that be handled.

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Bo Bennett, PhD
Saturday, January 21, 2017 - 02:53:52 PM
The fallacy is when the crap being said about the person is unrelated to what the person is claiming. So if the media says Trump is a liar, then you don't believe when he tells you X because you recall what the media said about him, that would be fallacious. There is some nuance here... reputations can rightly influence perceptions. But to make a definitive claim that Trump has lied because the media reminded us of his past lies, is fallacious.

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Lucia
Monday, July 16, 2018 - 04:23:34 PM
@Bo Bennett, PhD: Great response, Bo, but I invite you to correct typos. In particular, the second sentence should read: So if the media says Trump is a liar [not "lair"], then [not "the"] you don't believe when he tells you X because you recall what [delete "you"] the [not "he"] media said...
Please forgive an old proofreader for nitpicking. Really grateful to have stumbled upon your site. I appreciate your wonderful work here. Perhaps you guys have something to do with the abatement in the misuse of the phrase "begging the question." At least, I hope it's abating! :)

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Bo Bennett, PhD
Tuesday, July 17, 2018 - 03:38:43 AM
@Lucia: Thank you. I must have been responding to that one while driving. (just kidding)

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