Poisoning the well
Poisoning the well (or attempting to poison the well) is a rhetorical device where adverse information about a target is pre-emptively presented to an audience, with the intention of discrediting or ridiculing everything that the target person is about to say. Poisoning the well can be a special case of argumentum ad hominem, and the term was first used with this sense by John Henry Newman in his work Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1864). The origin of the term lies in well poisoning, an ancient wartime practice of pouring poison into sources of fresh water before an invading army, to diminish the attacking army's strength.
If Adam tells Bob, "Chris is a fascist so do not listen to him", then Adam has committed the fallacy of poisoning the well; if Bob takes Adam's advice then he is also a victim of the fallacy of poisoning the well. Assuming that Chris is not merely going to tell Bob that he is not a fascist then there is a fallacy because it is irrelevant to the cogency of Chris' argument(s) whether he is or is not a fascist. It is possible to be a fascist and also to have cogent arguments on some arbitrary matter, e.g. Chris may wish to persuade Bob that the Earth is not flat; being a fascist does not preclude the possibility of having a cogent argument that the Earth is not flat.
A poisoned-well "argument" has the following form:
- 1. Unfavorable information (be it true or false, relevant or irrelevant) about person A (the target) is presented by another. (e.g., "Before you listen to my opponent, may I remind you that he has been in jail.")
- 2. Implicit conclusion: "Therefore, any claims made by person A cannot be relied upon".
- A subcategory of this form is the application of an unfavorable attribute to any future opponents, in an attempt to discourage debate. (For example, "That's my stance on funding the public education system, and anyone who disagrees with me hates children.") Any person who steps forward to dispute the claim will then risk applying the tag to him or herself in the process.
A poisoned-well "argument" can also be in this form:
- 1. Unfavorable definitions (be it true or false) which prevent disagreement (or enforce affirmative position)
- 2. Any claims without first agreeing with above definitions are automatically dismissed.
- Ad hominem
- Appeal to ridicule
- Black propaganda
- Framing (social sciences)
- Fruit of the poisonous tree
- Guilt by association
- Scorched earth