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Monday fun: The Joy of Logical Fallacies
Posted by: McQ on Monday, April 17, 2006

I t’s another Monday morning and we could all use a little fun to start the day.

As we all know, sometimes people are just too clever for their own good. But we should all be thankful that even when they are stunningly and stultifyingly oblivious to a problem (as I'll illustrate in a moment), others can still learn from their error.

Question: are you familiar with the logical fallacy called "poisoning the well"?

Well today you're in for a treat. Rarely have I ever seen it so perfectly illustrated as in the following example from a self-described ”reality based” blog called "It Affects You".

Obviously what caught my attention was a link to a post on QandO. Clearly the intent of blogger Jeff's post was to fisk Jon's post on entitlements. Cool. That's something we all do in the blogosphere. It's one of our staples. But let's be honest, there is good fisking (and we all know it when we see it) and then, well, let's allow Jeff to show you how not to do it:
Not too long ago, Charles Murray proposed replacing Social Security and Medicare with simple cash grants to individuals. (Excuse me for a moment while I wash my hands after linking to AEI.) The often insightful Ezra Klein pointed out that the administration of these programs actually compares quite favorably to private-sector equivalents. Calling them “models of bureaucratic efficiency” was probably intended as a red flag for laissez-faire bulls and, sure enough, plenty of bull**** has been produced in response. One patty is from Jon Henke, who is usually about twice as smart and ten times as reasonable as his cohort McQ but is nonetheless a member of a group that would reject him if he didn’t at least occasionally indulge in a style of so-called debate that can only be called dishonest. Jon starts by talking about overhead.
Now, speaking for myself and considering the source of the insult (and the content of the post), I can only take his shot at me as a complement. And Jon should note that according to Jeff, he's only "usually" twice as smart as I am. Yes, Jon, it's not a permanent condition and I assume it is only operational when you agree with Jeff. I'd further assume that possibility never exists between Jeff and I. Ah well, such is life.

But for today's lesson, all that's really not important.

I have to ask, now that you've read it, have you ever seen a more stunning example of "poisoning the well"?

Seriously.

Is it perfect, or what?

For those who need a refresher, "poisoning the well" means:
Poisoning the well is a preemptive attack on a person in order to discredit their testimony or argument in advance of their giving it. A person who thereby becomes unreceptive to the testimony reasons fallaciously and has become a victim of the poisoner. This is a kind of ad hominem.
Oh, and I did get a chuckle out of Jeff's claim that Dale and I would surely "reject" Jon if it weren't for the fact that he indulges in a "style of so-called debate" described by our detractor as that which "can only be called dishonest". Who knew that Jon indulges in that occasional practice just to keep on our good side?

Yes Jon, we own you and if you don't indulge in more dishonest so-called debate, you can hit the door.

As you can imagine, given the intro, the rest of the post isn't worth the time to read. But you have to hand it to Jeff. Completely without knowing it, he has provided some instructor out there with the perfect example of a logical fallacy. I'm sure Jeff didn't set out yesterday to help educate our children about fallacious reasoning. But I can't help but believe this will be eagerly reviewed in classrooms across the nation for decades to come. The academic world is forever in Jeff's debt.

Heh.
 
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Comments
That’s not poisoning the well, McQ. To insult is not necessarily to discredit. As with ad hominem which is really just the specific version of well-poisoning, it’s only a fallacy if the negative commentary is presented as a counterargument. If it’s superfluous, off to the side, merely a style issue, then it might be distasteful but it’s not fallacious. Such is the case here. None of the arguments provided further down rely on the characterization of you or Jon, nor do they fall apart if that characterization is simply ignored or edited out. Whining about the intro is just a way of avoiding the actual issues.

Was I rude? Yes, but no more so than you have always been to me here. Be a big boy and get over it. You’re starting to sound as shrill as you accuse liberals of being.
 
Written By: Platypus
URL: http://pl.atyp.us
Poisoning the well is a preemptive attack on a person in order to discredit their testimony or argument in advance of their giving it.
What part of that don’t you understand, Playpus?

Poisoning the well is a personal attack in advance (thus the term preemptive) of making any counterargument. It’s purpose is to discredit the person, with the hope that doing so will discredit their argument in the eye of the reader prior to ever presenting counterargument. That’s why the definition continues by saying:
A person who thereby becomes unreceptive to the testimony reasons fallaciously and has become a victim of the poisoner.
And ...
None of the arguments provided further down rely on the characterization of you or Jon, nor do they fall apart if that characterization is simply ignored or edited out.


That has nothing to do with the fallacy nor it’s purpose.
Whining about the intro is just a way of avoiding the actual issues.
The purpose of using me in there was to make the writer seem resonable in his attack on Jon. Personally I thought it was funny. But when all is said and done, it’s simply a classic example of an ad hominem.
You’re starting to sound as shrill as you accuse liberals of being.
Well to this point you’ve been wrong about everything else you’ve said so why should this be any different ... please, point out where in that piece I even approached being "shrill".

Heck, I even classified it under "humor".
 
Written By: McQ
URL: http://www.qando.net/
it’s only a fallacy if the negative commentary is presented as a counterargument.
You are 100% wrong. "Poisoning the well" is ANY (true or false) information about a person that presents bias before giving the actual argument.
 
Written By: JWG
URL: http://
it’s only a fallacy if the negative commentary is presented as a counterargument.
Let me clarify a bit on why there is a logical fallacy. The person who "poisons the well" is not making the fallacy...that person creates the environment in which the AUDIENCE makes the logical fallacy.
 
Written By: JWG
URL: http://
...that person creates the environment in which the AUDIENCE makes the logical fallacy.
Exactly. The attempt is to preconditon the reader to reject the argument and be receptive to the counterargument. As the definition says, "a person who thereby becomes unreceptive to the testimony reasons fallaciously and has become a victim of the poisoner."

 
Written By: McQ
URL: http://www.qando.net/
BTW, McQ, Platypus IS Jeff from It Affects You.

 
Written By: D
URL: http://
BTW, McQ, Platypus IS Jeff from It Affects You.
There’s a surprise.
 
Written By: McQ
URL: http://www.qando.net/
Jeff’s mug: http://pl.atyp.us/jeff/index.html
 
Written By: capt joe
URL: http://
Yeah, that would be why I used the first person in my comment. I thought you already knew that.

BTW, way to establish the moral high ground, capt_joe. Are you going to make disparaging comments about my family next? Looks like this is going to be a thread about well-poisoning after all, but not in the way McQ intended.
 
Written By: Platypus
URL: http://pl.atyp.us
not in the way McQ intended
Are you still trying to claim your writing did not employ the "poisoning the well" technique?
 
Written By: JWG
URL: http://
Oh, and McQ? The reason I referred to you originally was to make Jon look reasonable, not myself. If I wanted to poison the wells I would have put him on the negative side of a comparison (e.g. to Ezra Klein), not the positive side. Or maybe I would have called him a coward for not raising objections when there was still risk in doing so. That’s real well-poisoning, as it attempts to dismiss another’s position instead of engaging it. It’s what I’ve seen you do repeatedly, and what Jon tried to do in his first response to my post, but it’s not what I did. I went on to discuss the specific flaws in Jon’s argument in the very next paragraph, without having to be goaded into it.

That should answer your question as well, JWG. The answer is no. My comment might not have been venomous, but it did not render the well’s water impotable. That’s a specialty I leave to others.
 
Written By: Platypus
URL: http://pl.atyp.us
The reason I referred to you originally was to make Jon look reasonable, not myself.
Ah, I see ... so calling him "usually twice as smart" is your way of making him look "reasonable" Jeff?

Well then I assume pointing to his writing on the subject of entitlements as "one patty" in a bunch of BS was also an attempt to make him appear reasonable, right?

And how about your statement that he engaged in "so-called debate that can only be called dishonest". Another attempt to make him look reasonable?

Heh.
If I wanted to poison the wells I would have put him on the negative side of a comparison (e.g. to Ezra Klein), not the positive side.
It’s not a matter of if you wanted to poison the well.

You did.
 
Written By: McQ
URL: http://www.qando.net/
Jeff claims:
I referred to [McQ] originally was to make Jon look reasonable
But let’s look at what he said about Jon before making any arguments:
plenty of bull**** has been produced in response. One patty is from Jon Henke...a member of a group that would reject him if he didn’t at least occasionally indulge in a style of so-called debate that can only be called dishonest
Maybe you should take a course on logical arguments before you try to explain your understanding of logical fallacies any further?
 
Written By: JWG
URL: http://
For what it’s worth, far too much attention has been focused on this already.

I wrote a post. Jeff disagreed. In the course of his generally reasonable disagreement, he questioned my honesty and integrity. In response, I simply pointed out that I’m not inclined to debate people who start by calling me a liar. I have enough respect for myself and for productive debate that I am just not interested in subjecting myself to personal abuse.

That said, aside from his charge that I was dishonest, his argument was at least reasonable. I disagree with it and I think he mis-understood my argument, but his was still a reasonable argument to make.
 
Written By: Jon Henke
URL: http://www.QandO.net
Maybe I can make this a little easier to understand. Let’s rearrange the statements a little to put the focus on Jon:


Jon Henke, who occasionally indulges in dishonest debate and is a member of an unintelligent and unreasonable group, wrote some bull****. Here are his arguments...


No poisoning of the well? Hmmm.

 
Written By: JWG
URL: http://
Nice ellipsis, JWG, leaving out the part that actually caused McQ such pain. Maybe you should take an ethics course.

But do you know what? If the subject is to be the "occasionally indulge" part, which has not previously been the focus, then I’ll cop to one instance of well-poisoning - in an aside, primarily directed at someone other than my interlocutor, easily excised without changing the meaning of the rest. Mea culpa. Now, are you going to give Jon and McQ as hard a time for the four or five fallacies I’ve pointed out, which are central to the arguments they’ve been making, or is the old double standard still in effect? Be careful that you don’t validate my observation about the company Jon keeps.

As Jon points out, the issues seem to have been lost. Is this about the issues, or (less optimally) about debating tactics, or (worst of all but most likely) just an excuse to bash a convenient liberal?
 
Written By: Platypus
URL: http://pl.atyp.us
Is this about the issues ...
The "issues" are in the title of this post.
... or (less optimally) about debating tactics, or (worst of all but most likely) just an excuse to bash a convenient liberal?
Who’s whining now, Jeff?
 
Written By: McQ
URL: http://www.qando.net/
As Jon points out, the issues seem to have been lost. Is this about the issues, or (less optimally) about debating tactics, or (worst of all but most likely) just an excuse to bash a convenient liberal?
Wow. Let’s set up a timeline:


1) Jeff uses an ad hominem logical fallacy before making his arguments.
2) McQ calls him on it.
3) Jeff denies it.
4) JWG offers definitions and examples.
5) Jeff insults JWG for demonstrating his logical error.
4) Jeff admits to the error.
5) Jeff complains that the argument is no longer about the issues.


Tip to Jeff: If you want the argument to be about the issues, don’t start off with ad hominem attacks.

 
Written By: JWG
URL: http://
That’s not the high ground you’re standing on, McQ. I admitted error. Can you? It sure didn’t look like it when you were caught impugning generals’ motives, and I’m apparently not the only (or even highest-profile) blogger who noticed you poisoning that well. Clean your own house first. Piling on like this is just as unseemly as anything you’ve accused me of.
 
Written By: Platypus
URL: http://pl.atyp.us
It sure didn’t look like it when you were caught impugning generals’ motives, and I’m apparently not the only (or even highest-profile) blogger who noticed you poisoning that well.
You still don’t understand the fallacy, do you Jeff?

Yeesh ...

BTW, your highlighted comment above is an example of a ’red herring’ in case you’re wondering.
Piling on like this is just as unseemly as anything you’ve accused me of.
And still whining.

I’m not the one who keeps coming back and throwing more accusations around, Jeff ...

Goodness.

Heck, in reality, you should be thanking me. Your blog has gotten more hits this morning than it usually gets all day.
 
Written By: McQ
URL: http://www.qando.net/
You don’t see how accusing the generals of cowardice, before you even get to addressing their specific criticism, isn’t poisoning the wells? Maybe you should do something about that beam before you get so worked up about my mote.
Your blog has gotten more hits this morning than it usually gets all day.
It’s not my blog, and hits aren’t everything. There’s also truth, which those extra visitors are seeing, so thank you. Any time you want to give me a bigger soapbox from which to illustrate what’s wrong with contemporary laissez-faire (not "libertarian" when it has nothing to do with liberty) thought, feel free. :)
 
Written By: Platypus
URL: http://pl.atyp.us
You don’t see how accusing the generals of cowardice, before you even get to addressing their specific criticism, isn’t poisoning the wells?
Boy you are really reaching, aren’t you?

Reread the post, Jeff. My ’gripe’ as I called it, was with their method, not necessarily with any ’specific criticism’. You see, in my posts, I get to frame the argument, not you.

Fourth line in:
If they were so opposed to what Rumsfeld and crew were doing, I wonder if in fact they shouldn’t have put their stars on the line when they served.
After an intro, directly to the point. No preemptive trash talk like you did.

I asked why they didn’t speak out during their time on active duty instead of when safely retired ... that’s a legitimate question. The rest of the post explores the question.

What I didn’t do was call them and their ideas a pile of BS or label them as dishonest as you did prior to getting to the point of your post.
There’s also truth, which those extra visitors are seeing, so thank you.
Heh ... why, did I misquote you? Look if they see the "truth," that’s perfectly fine with me. And you’re welcome.
Any time you want to give me a bigger soapbox from which to illustrate what’s wrong with contemporary laissez-faire (not "libertarian" when it has nothing to do with liberty) thought, feel free. :)
You know where to send the check. ;)
 
Written By: McQ
URL: http://www.qando.net/
BTW, way to establish the moral high ground, capt_joe. Are you going to make disparaging comments about my family next?
What’s disparaging about "Here’s his picture", which is essentially all Capt. Joe wrote?

("Mug" means face, not criminal. In case you’re confused about the meaning of "mug shot".)
 
Written By: Mark A. Flacy
URL: http://
As in "mugging for the camera" perhaps.
 
Written By: looker
URL: http://
Wow, Mr Platypus how far over the top shall we go?

All I pointed out was you face on your website. By the way, "mug" is slang for face. There was no value judgement there. Just a follow up on the who is Jeff and who is Platypus. Remember there was some confusion there.

I think, however, that your reaction was quite extreme as your entire reaction to being called out over your commentary.

 
Written By: capt joe
URL: http://
As for piling on, believe me, this is nothing compared to what would happen if you were one of us commenting at Atrios, KoS or any of thise on the left. The profanities and orientation slurs would have appeared in 2 posts after your at least.

Come on, you libel these guys and they called you on it. You then tried some more libel and they called you on that. Now you are engagin in another set of logical fallacies by changin the argument to something that McQ wrote and out of context to that point.

Just admit you wrote you blog entry in a fit of pique and get on with your life. One thing I have noted about a lot of the bloggers I read on the right is that they can do this. These guys do fairly often. So far I haven’t noted anything like that on the left. Why is that?
 
Written By: capt joe
URL: http://
I’m sure Jeff didn’t set out yesterday to help educate our children about fallacious reasoning.
I wouldn’t worry about it — I doubt anybody is trying to teach our children about reasoning at all.
 
Written By: Bitter
URL: http://qando.net/
This whole discussion, along with the fallacy site it links to, appears to be premised on a fallacy of its own: the "fallacy fallacy," which basically goes like this:
Argument A was presented as evidence of Conclusion C.

A is not a logical proof of C.

Therefore, not C.
The Fallacy Files site oversimplifies things a bit, implying that if A doesn’t entail C, A should not be considered at all while evaluating the likelihood of C. In so doing, they read the fallacy fallacy too narrowly, and the general concept of fallacies too broadly. The problem is that for purposes of geometric logic, any argument that falls short of a mathematical proof is regarded as a "fallacy." It doesn’t matter whether A, if true, would increase the probability of C by 100 fold, or whether A has no connection to C whatsoever. As long as A does not constitute a rock-solid, mathematical proof that C must be true, any use of A to advance C, whether justified or not, will be regarded as a "fallacy."

The writer McQ links to makes this point for me, albeit unintentionally. He starts with the broad statement that fallacies "should not be persuasive" - presumably, ever. Then, under the very entry McQ linked to, the author provides an example where the fallacy complained of should indeed be persuasive: the courtroom, where juries routinely draw factual conclusions based on imperfect proofs. The author’s own example fits this pattern nicely:
[Prosecuting attorney in court] When is the defense attorney planning to call that twice-convicted child molester, David Barnington, to the stand? OK, I’ll rephrase that. When is the defense attorney planning to call David Barnington to the stand?
Assume, for argument’s sake, that Mr. Barnington is in fact a twice-convicted child molester, and that there are no extenuating circumstances that would make this description misleading. Does the author really think that a twice-convicted child molester is no more likely to lie on the stand than your average joe is? If so, try the same example, but assume that the guy’s priors were for perjury, instead. Then what? No matter what the guy’s past involve, it will never serve as an absolute proof that he’s lying now, which is presumably the conclusion the prosecutor wants the jury to draw. But just because it falls short of absolute proof - and therefore can be pooh-poohed by bored logicians as a "fallacy" - does not mean it isn’t highly probative of the issue, and it certainly doesn’t mean a jury would be wrong to draw that conclusion from it.

As to the unfortunately-named liberal blogger who sparked this thread, I think the real problem lies not in the fact that he poisoned the well per se, but in the fact he did so by way of an unjustified, unsubstantiated accusation - fake poison, if you will. Suppose he had argued not with Jon but with some other blogger who really does have a track record of lying, arguing dishonestly, or doing anything else that casts legitimate doubts on the issue he’s arguing about now. Pointing that history out would still ve considered "poisoning the well," but what the hell would be wrong with it?
 
Written By: Xrlq
URL: http://xrlq.com/

 
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