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Tuesday 4 May 2021

Don't Drink That!

I'm republishing this after some semi-minor but critical editing. Coming back to read it again, my treatment of the 'guilt by association' iteration of the fallacy came across as sanctimonious, which was not my intent (nor is it ever). I had intended it only as an exposition of the logic, but I wandered into territory not directly related to the fallacy. I think it was important to do so because the underlying logic in the exposition, if applied pragmatically to the discussion as a whole, leads as a matter of logical necessity to my motive for remaining engaged with the holders of toxic views. I've expanded and clarified that section.

The poisoned well
oison is in everything, and no thing is without poison. The dosage makes it either a poison or a remedy - Paracelsus

Today, I want to talk about what may just be the most ubiquitous fallacy in public discourse. I had been working on a piece about the pernicious and condescending practice of delivering adenoid-driven explanations as a means of asserting superiority, another ubiquitous feature of modern discourse, but each time I begin cataloguing examples, better examples come along, and it's turning out to take a bit longer than expected. In that light, I thought something quick and dirty to keep you occupied, dear reader, would be worthwhile.

What makes the fallacy I want to discuss particularly disheartening is that it isn't restricted to those one would normally identify as prone to irrationality and failures of logic. That fallacy is, of course, poisoning the well.

This is a fallacy that's rarely committed in its own right, generally serving as the underlying motivation for the commission of very many fallacies of relevance. It's of particular moment now, as this fallacy has become something of a default for apologists not only of religion but of almost any position, and we see it especially in political spheres. It's even become an issue in the global rationalist community.

Let's unpack it a bit and see what it looks like, and then we can move onto some examples of its commission taken from the public sphere. All the examples I'll cite are pretty current, and there's at least one instance we've already looked at in another post. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The well-poisoning fallacy is a fallacy of relevance. Like all fallacies of relevance, it falls under the general heading of 'red herring' or what I like to call the 'quick, look over there' fallacy. We've looked at quite a few fallacies of relevance before, notably here, among other places, and they all have one key feature, namely that they have no bearing whatsoever on the veracity of an argument. The most common instances fall under the general heading of genetic fallacy, which we examined in considerable detail here. The genetic fallacy is committed when an argument is either accepted or rejected based only on the source or of some characteristic, whether real or imagined, of the source of the argument. Common examples are the argumentum ad populum - appeal to popularity - and the argumentum ad verecundiam - appeal to authority or reverence.

In the case of poisoning the well, it's most often used as a means of attempting to shut down discourse. It's essentially saying 'you shouldn't listen to this person because...' most often followed with some other fallacious appeal or, in many cases, an entirely invented characteristic.

The most common instances of this fallacy in public discourse come in the form of 'appeal to motivation', which is itself a fairly obvious fallacy. What motivates somebody to make an argument has no bearing at all on whether the argument has merit or is sound. Let's look at some examples so we can get a feel for how it works.

Virtue-signalling: I chose this example because this accusation appears to be the fallacy of the modern age. An accusation of virtue-signalling is an attempt to dismiss what somebody is saying based only on a perception of the motivation for saying it. It has exactly nothing to do with the content of what they're saying or its veridical value.

People have opinions about things. Those opinions can be motivated by different things, and the motivation to voice them can also be motivated by different things, regardless of whether those opinions are genuinely held. It's entirely probable that people give voice to opinions purely because they think they look good voicing them but to actually assume that and to use it as an excuse to dismiss an argument is to commit this fallacy. To actually give voice to it in public discourse is not only to commit the appeal to motivation, it's also to engage in poisoning the well.

As an aside, although this is an informal fallacy, not being directly related to structure, the underlying premise is rooted in a fallacy that's fully formal. I always think it useful to highlight this, because we can very easily overlook fallacies if we don't delve into what's going on. 

In this case, the fallacy is the old favourite and the most common formal fallacy committed in discourse, affirming the consequent. To see how this is formal, we should break it down into syllogistic form.

P1: Virtue-signallers make statements that make them look good.
P2: This statement makes the arguer look good.
C: The arguer is virtue-signalling.


\( \dfrac {P \Rightarrow Q,\ Q} {\therefore P} \)

My go-to exposition of this fallacy highlights the problem nicely.

P1: All men are mortal.
P2: Hitler was mortal.
C: Hitler was a man.

As always, this looks fine on the face of it, right until I tell you that Hitler was my next-door neighbour's cat. Many things are mortal, and this argument discounts all of them.

As we can see then, the accusation of virtue-signalling, while informally fallacious in its own right, committing the well-poisoning fallacy, is predicated on a formal fallacy. Many things can motivate a statement, including virtue-signalling, but also the wish for things to be better for people, or any number of other things, and the premise underlying this accusation discounts all of them.

I'll leave that there, because smuggled fallacies like this are going to be the topic of a more complete treatment in the near future, as these are the most difficult fallacies to deal with. In general, though, where you spot an appeal to any sort of motivation or, indeed, where an outcome is cited as categorical evidence of something - the ever-popular 'look at the trees' trope among them - there's an instance of affirming the consequent smuggled into the situation somewhere.

Nazi sympathies: Another instance is one I've covered before in slightly different context, notably here where, among other instances, a popular rational blogger was accused of being a Nazi sympathiser because he advocated free speech. As in the other example, no attempt was made to actually address the content of the argument, it was merely asserted that he sympathised with the views of Nazis on no other grounds than that he thought that punching them in an attempt to silence them was an affront to the most basic of our freedoms. Once again, this is nothing but an attempt to stifle discourse.

Guilt by association: Of course, appealing to motivation isn't the only means of well-poisoning employed in common discourse. Another is particularly troubling to somebody like me, because it's not an attempt to stifle discourse, but an attempt to excoriate one's personal associations.

An example of this popped up only a few days ago on Twitter, and I thought it worth mentioning here just so that the problems inherent in it can be exposed.

It was suggested to a writer of some repute that, if she associated with people who doubt gender identity, that she was denying transgender people the right to exist. It should be fairly obvious just from this statement of the situation that there's a reasonably close correlation to the above situation with advocating for freedom of speech even where the opinions being expressed are distasteful. In this instance, though, there are deeper problems.

The first and most obvious problem is the attempt to control other people's interpersonal relationships based on one's own views regarding with whom we should be associating. I won't go any deeper into that, not least because I really shouldn't need to discuss what a toxic notion it is that somebody purports to be in a position to define the relationships of another based on their own criteria.

On the other hand, while I can sympathise that some might not wish to associate with people whose opinions they find undesirable, it does pose some problems, and they're problems anybody interested in making social progress should be deeply concerned with.

All else aside, people's positions can change or, at least, I hope they can. It's a measure of intellectual honesty that one's opinions can be influenced by information. It isn't always easy to find the route to doing this, as we discovered in Patterns and the Inertia of Ideas, where we examined cognitive inertia and some of what it can take to overcome it. However, we do know that minds can be changed given the right motivation. What can't be done, however, is to change the minds of those we disagree with when we won't give them the time of day. In order to challenge notions we find unpalatable, we have to be prepared to meet them, even to the degree of treating them as charitably as we can in order to engage in reasonable discourse.

Ultimately, nobody should want to live in an echo chamber. Setting aside other considerations, we can only ever be completely confident of being able to argue our own positions if we can countenance having them challenged.

In the end, it's only through dialogue that we can really hope to enact the change we wish to see in the world. Attempts to silence those whose opinions we disagree with, either by actually silencing them through violence or by insulating ourselves from them accomplishes nothing, except possibly to drive those unwelcome opinions underground for them to fester until the sociopolitical landscape changes sufficiently to air them again. I, for one, don't see this as a desirable tactic. As I said in the previous article on free speech, nobody learns anything while fists are flying.

It's extremely important to note that the opinion exposed in the last few paragraphs is not a directive of any description. This is my prescription for my own interactions and the logic that motivates it. All else aside, it isn't for me to even contemplate the experience-derived attitudes of those who suffer the effects of discrimination of any degree or what they feel is the appropriate approach to the toxic idiots who deliver said effects. I can fully appreciate that my position is almost entirely intellectually derived, and doesn't reflect any of their lived experience. This is a prescription for me, and an exposition of my motivations for always trying (not always successfully, given my propensity for anger at the crappy ways people treat each other) to stay in the game, challenging toxic opinions. It's important to note that the harm done by such toxicity isn't a matter of logic, and nor is the harm suffered, and they are quite rightly stronger motivators in the real world than logic. This does not constitute a logical contradiction.

Contrary to popular belief, being rational doesn't entail making all your decisions based on logic alone. To discount the emotional and physical things that have genuine effects in the real world is not rational, it's deeply, deeply irrational, and not a little stupid. Recall that the appeal to emotion, appeal to consequences and, indeed, all fallacies are not enjoinders to make decisions a given way, only to assess the support offered for a truth statement. The truth value of a proposition is only one of the factors we need to include in our decision-making. In order to treat any situation rationally, we need premises rooted in the effects of actions and the benefit or detriment of a given proposition based on those premises. 

That said, and especially given the entirely justified unwillingness of some of the targets of toxic attitudes, speech and actions to engage with the bigots, I feel it's incumbent on me to remain engaged insofar as I can, so that all potential routes to progress can be explored.

As Mr Spock famously said, logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end of it.

I'll leave that now, except to note that my excellent friend Jackson Wheat did a nice little video on the 'Guilt by Association' fallacy, which I'll include at the bottom.

Anti-democracy: This one's pretty funny, in some ways. It's one I've been accused of, and I'm far from being the only one. This has been levelled at many, many people in the wake of last summer's Brexit vote, notably those who voiced the opinion that the UK's leaving Europe should be subject to a second referendum once we get a clearer picture of just what Brexit will look like. The level of cognitive dissonance required to hold the position that wanting another vote is anti-democratic is pretty special, however you slice it. More importantly, the position falls prey to its own critique, since what it's actually voicing is the notion that the people shouldn't be allowed to speak once they've spoken. Under such silly reasoning, Parliament should still be under Whig control, since the people spoke in 1715, and that settles the matter. Never mind that the landscape has changed completely, and the Whig party hasn't existed since the year Darwin published his seminal work! 

There's an important point in there about that changing landscape. When the Brexit referendum took place, nobody had the faintest idea of what it would look like. In reality, we still don't. It's fairly clear that many who voted to leave were using their votes in protest. Many have expressed 'buyer's remorse'. One leave voter, only the following day when the count was finalised, said that she didn't think that the leave vote would win, and that she's only voted leave as some sort of joke. In the end, the leave vote won, and now it looks like nobody commissioned with securing the best future for the nation is remotely interested in pulling us back from the brink, including those who promoted remaining in the EU.

I won't dwell on that any further, but I did want to mention one more example of well-poisoning. This one is slightly different, in that the motivation for poisoning the well is pure deflection. This is a tactic that found prominence in the US election cycle last year, and has been carried over into the post-election political arena. 

Whataboutism: This is an extremely pernicious tactic in discourse and, although it's a time-worn fallacy, it seems to have grown new legs of late. 

You'll all have seen it on the TV news shows, where a question was asked about some questionable action Komrade Trichindova engaged in that ended up all over the news, and some idiot Drumpf surrogate deflecting to some allegation, usually fabricated out of whole cloth, concerning some action of Hillary Clinton. Now, before we even get started, I'm already on record as saying that I'm no great fan of Clinton but, in terms of suitability for the presidency when given a choice of her or the orange buffoon, there was simply no competition. That aside, we're more concerned with the underlying logic of the above deflection which was, as near as I can tell, the entirety of Snackface's campaign strategy. It's a logical nonsense, and the only reason for employing it in any setting was to burn up the air-time so that there was no time to answer the question put to the surrogate.

Bad enough, though, that this tactic was employed throughout the campaign. What's even worse is that it's still being used by the White House even now. Only Thursday, Sarah Sanders, White House Press Secretary, appeared on Fox News. Fox has traditionally been a safe venue for the Trump administration but, in a rare instance of being presented with a tough question, Bill Hemmers asked Sarah Sanders a question about the ongoing investigation into possible collusion with Russian actors during the election. Without skipping a beat, Sanders leapt straight to talking about how Clinton had, as secretary of state, been involved in a deal involving American stocks of uranium.

This isn't an isolated incident, either. It's pretty much universal whenever Trump, his representatives or his surrogates are confronted with a difficult question. Trump himself still can't stop talking about the election win, although I suspect that this is simply because he's a moron, and not motivated by anything as intelligent as deflection.

An even more toxic example appears in the guise of racists deflecting on the history of slavery in the US with vague arm-waving about some of the non-white people with any association with the slave trade, however tangential, as if the actions of individuals can be compared with those of very large groups of people and, in fact, government. Lest we forget, while there are very few verifiable instances of the US Federal Government actually purchasing slaves, they were entirely willing to rent the slaves of private slave-owners. In Washington, in particular, they were spoiled for choice, given that 40% of white householders owned slaves. The White House, the Capitol (including, somewhat ironically, the Statue of Freedom that sits atop the cupola), the Smithsonian, all built by slaves.

I think we've covered the important bases, but I think a brief (non-exhaustive) list of terms whose invention and invocation serve no other purpose than to poison the well is in order. If you see these terms, remember what we've discussed here.


  • Cuck
  • Snowflake
  • Libtard
  • SJW
  • RWNJ
  • Leftie
  • Scientism
  • Cupcake
Appeals to emotional or psychological state, in which you're accused of being:
  • Angry
  • Rattled
  • Caffeinated
  • Menstrual
These and more are being employed for no other purpose than to poison the well and to deflect away from the argument. Look out for this, and hold the poisoner's feet to the fire.

I hope this was useful/informative/entertaining. Thanks for reading. Nits and crits gratefully received, as always.

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