5X5 Episode 55

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5X5 Episode 55
Poisoning The Well
28th January 2009

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5X5 54 5X5 56
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
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Skepticism 101- Poisoning The Well[edit]

Voice-over: You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide 5x5, five minutes with five skeptics, with Steve, Jay, Rebecca, Bob and Evan.

S: This is the SGU 5X5, and this is our ongoing series on Skepticism 101. We're covering various logical fallacies. And this night we're talking about "poisoning the well". This is a logical fallacy by which you attempt to cast doubt upon the claims of an individual by attaching them either to bad characteristics, negative characteristics, or to other things that are distasteful or that are incorrect.

B: The form that the argument generally takes would be "person A will likely make an argument against what I say. But person A is untrustworthy. Therefore, whatever they say is wrong."

S: In which case, it's very close to an ad hominem attack essentially; an argument ad hominem.

E: And the phrase "poisoning the well" actually originated in the time of the Middle Ages, when bubonic plague was spreading across Europe, and rumors arose that it was the Jewish people that were poisoning the wells of Christians in order to make them die of the plague.

S: Another use of "poisoning the well" is not an ad hominem attack, but to just attach a belief to something that is perceived as negative. One thing that is very common in our current culture is to attach anything you don't like to Adolf Hitler, for example. It's like, "the Nazis believed that, therefore, it must be wrong". It's not making an argument against the belief itself; it's just making it seem that if you believe that, then you believe something that the Nazis believed.

J: There's a recent example of that in the movie Expelled. They actually compared Nazi Germany to evolution.

S: Yeah, they were making a direct connection between evolution and the Holocaust, and that is absolutely one long attempt at poisoning the well of evolution - evolution is attached to eugenics and to the Holocaust.

R: There's some recent research that always makes me think of—that it's a good example of how effective "poisoning the well" is. What some researchers did was ask people to try on a sweater, and most people were OK with trying on a sweater. But then they told another group of people that the sweater had belonged to a serial killer previously, and no one wanted to go anywhere near the sweater, even though it's really just a sweater.[1] So, it's interesting, the way that we attach certain feelings to things when we're prepped for that.

S: Yeah, it's ultimately very emotionally manipulative. You're trying to evoke a sense of disgust in a person, for example, or a social stigma to a belief. And this is all a way of circumventing dealing with the actual logic or evidence of an argument or a claim, to create the impression that the argument is incorrect, or to convince your audience not to believe in it simply because other people who believe in it have some negative characteristic, or believing in it itself has a negative connotation, or is perceived of as being "not virtuous".

B: Don't forget that there are times when it is appropriate to point out a relevant conflict of interest. For example, if a jail-house informant might have agreed to testify in court in exchange for privileges that he might get for the information that they're giving.

J: Yeah, It's a good point you bring up, Bob, because it's not just a logical fallacy, but it's also a technique, which is actually valid. As an example, a lawyer could bring up a point about someone who—lawyers do it all the time, where they'll bring up information about someone who had testified that puts them into a different light that could actually be truthful.

S: But you do have to separate what Bob is talking about, which is putting somebody's credibility into context, or saying that we need to raise our level of skepticism regarding the claims that this person is making because they have a significant conflict of interest. However, the appearance of a conflict of interest is also a very common tactic of poisoning the well. For example, the anti-vaccinationists will often argue that any scientific research that was conducted by somebody who has even the most ancillary and incidental connection to a pharmaceutical company or a government regulatory agency, that that poisons the well; that they are tainted by what is really not a functional conflict of interest, but which can easily be made to seem sinister, or to seem as if it is a conflict of interest. So that actually becomes a very common form of poisoning the well these days.

S: SGU 5x5 is a companion podcast to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, a weekly science podcast brought to you by the New England Skeptical Society in association with skepchick.org. For more information on this and other episodes, visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. Music is provided by Jake Wilson.


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