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Poisoning the Well

Ad Hominem Fallacies of Relevance

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Fallacy Name:
Poisoning the Well

Alternative Names:
Smear Tactics
Smear Campaign

Category:
Fallacies of Relevance > Ad Hominem Arguments


Explanation:
Another type of ad hominem fallacy is called Poisoning the Well. This is a little bit unusual in that it involves a preemptive attack on a person. Instead of responding to their arguments by questioning their character, a person committing this fallacy "poisons the well" by making them appear bad before they even have a chance to say anything.

In fact, almost any of the other ad hominem fallacies can be changed into an example of Poisoning the Well, for example:

1. You have been proven to be a liar numerous times, so I don't believe what you are saying now.

2. He has been proven to be a liar numerous times, so don't believe anything he tells you.

The origin of this label comes from the medieval myth of Jews poisoning the wells used by Christians in towns and villages across Europe. Charges of such actions, for example when a plague struck an area, often resulted in expulsion or death for many, many Jews.


Examples and Discussion:
Here are some examples of this fallacy which are similar to those you might encounter:

3. When reading posts by atheists, remember that because they deny God, they also have no morals, so they simply can't be trusted.

4. If Christians can believe all the nonsense in the Bible, how can I trust any of the other things they say, like in politics?

5. When listening to what my opponents have to say, keep in mind that they don't really have safety of this country as their first priority.

In all of the above, we can see the arguer attempting to influence how people evaluate arguments which they have not yet seen by attacking some allegedly negative characteristic held by those who will be making those arguments. Note that example #5 is only implicitly an argument - there is no explicit conclusion given. But, it is implied that what the "opponents" have to say can't be trusted.

A key characteristic of this fallacy is that the attack being made is almost impossible to respond to. For example, in #3 above an atheist can't really offer a response: because the arguer is assuming that atheists cannot be trusted, nothing an atheist says to disprove that will be trusted.

One common way you can find this fallacy being used is in the context of a "smear campaign." If there is an attempt to discredit a person or an organization before they have a chance to explain or defend themselves publicly, the purpose is to influence what people will think before they ever hear what is going on. The desired result is that people will prejudge the arguments made or evidence provided because they have developed a negative view of the person offering those arguments or evidence.

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