Understanding the 'Poisoning the Well' Logical Fallacy

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Poisoning the well is a logical fallacy (a type of ad hominem argument) in which a person attempts to place an opponent in a position from which he or she is unable to reply.

Examples and Observations

"Another technique by which the personality of a speaker is sometimes discredited is called poisoning the well. An enemy, when he poisons a well, ruins the water; no matter how good or how pure the water was, it is now tainted and hence unusable. When an opponent uses this technique, he casts such aspersions on a person that the person cannot possibly recover and defend himself without making matters much worse.

CITY COUNCILMAN: The Mayor's a very good talker. Yes, talk he can do . . . and do very well. But when it comes time for action, that's a different matter.

How can the mayor respond? If he remains silent, he runs the risk of appearing to accept the councilman's criticisms. But if he stands up and defends himself, then he is talking; and the more he talks, the more he appears to be confirming the accusations. The well has been poisoned, and the mayor is in a difficult position." (Robert J. Gula, Nonsense. Axios, 2007)

"The recent attacks by Republican leaders and their ideological fellow-travelers on the effort to reform the health-care system have been so misleading, so disingenuous, that they could only spring from a cynical effort to gain partisan political advantage. By poisoning the political well, they've given up any pretense of being the loyal opposition. They've become political terrorists, willing to say or do anything to prevent the country from reaching a consensus on one of its most serious domestic problems." (Steven Pearlstein, "Republicans Propagating Falsehoods in Attacks on Health-Care Reform." The Washington Post, Aug. 7, 2009)

'The Rat' Example

"I leaped to my feet, bellowing like a bull. 'Will you or will you not go steady with me?'

"'I will not,' she replied.

"'Why not?' I demanded.

"'Because this afternoon I promised Petey Bellows that I would go steady with him.'

"I reeled back, overcome with the infamy of it. After he promised, after he made a deal, after he shook my hand! 'The rat!' I shrieked, kicking up great chunks of turf. 'You can’t go with him, Polly. He’s a liar. He’s a cheat. He’s a rat.'

"'Poisoning the Well,' said Polly, 'and stop shouting. I think shouting must be a fallacy too.'" (Max Shulman, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. Doubleday, 1951)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Understanding the 'Poisoning the Well' Logical Fallacy." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/poisoning-the-well-fallacy-1691639. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). Understanding the 'Poisoning the Well' Logical Fallacy. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/poisoning-the-well-fallacy-1691639 Nordquist, Richard. "Understanding the 'Poisoning the Well' Logical Fallacy." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/poisoning-the-well-fallacy-1691639 (accessed March 28, 2023).