There is little else that a christian apologist likes more than a poor understood and woefully misapplied fallacy. The case in point is the "poisoning the well fallacy".
What, I hear you ask, is the "poisoning the well fallacy"? We'll get to that, but the question itself is interesting. I've seen mention of this fallacy a few times recently, but only within a very limited range. In other words, if you go to specific web-sites or forums and hang around for any amount of time, you will hear poisoning the well mentioned, but in the rest of your life, you may not hear it mentioned at all – unless you are an historian or you're a right-wing nut-job and/or christian apologist.
Most recently, I've been accused of the committing the fallacy myself. Here's that accusation:
“I’m astounded to see that this grant has, as its source, Templeton World Charity Foundation/Research Support…”
I’m astounded to see you questioning Luke’s objectivity when you can’t even recognize a poisoning the well fallacy in your own comments. Any mediocre high school student studying philosophy would’ve known to avoid this… you didn’t. If there are issues with Luke’s objectivity or funding they will reveal themselves in flawed datasets and/or faulty analysis. This is what you need to demonstrate if you want to make a credible case. So far you have not, here or at your own blog. In any event you certainly aren’t going to do so by questioning his motives, especially when they haven’t kept him from avoiding basic logical blunders you’ve fallen for or led to his published research failing peer-review.
If I were you I’d steer clear of poisoning the well not only because it’s fallacious, but because it can be turned against you with a great deal of force.
Luke is operating from “a covert position as a theist” you say…? Well he’s clearly stated that he’s a theist in this forum and elsewhere. His home page (linked from this blog) lists his CV, his research, his popular and refereed publications… everything one needs to vet his claims. If there’s anything “covert” in all that I’m not seeing it. Your blog on the other hand tells us… nothing. You show an email, an empty “About Me” section, an icon, and a note that says you’ve been on blogger.com since June 2012. No CV, no publications refereed or otherwise… nothing whatsoever that might tell us whether you’re qualified to speak on this or any other topic. As for the “objectivity” of atheism (yours or anyone else’s)… countless examples can be documented of where an atheist agenda led to all sorts of reckless scholarship, including (but not restricted to) ignorance of science, ignorance of philosophy and history, cherry picking, math errors, citing gossip spoof sites as legitimate sources, and even deliberately falsifying information, the latter of which is outright negligence.
You need to up your game Sir… ;-)
Well, thank you for your interest, Scott Church, of scottchurchdirect.com (apparently a gossip spoof site, but perhaps I am misunderstanding the intent of his link). I was going to protest loudly about the list of crimes tacked onto the end of this comment, but it appears that Scott has protected himself by being vague as to who has committed these crimes. At least the links he provides, when he provides them, indicate that there were other suspects (Richard Dawkins in one cherry picked example – the arguments in the God Delusion do not hinge on the specifics regarding the ravings of Pat Robinson – and Lawrence Krauss in another).
I find it interesting that, according to Scott Church, Luke Barnes is a theist and he (Barnes) has admitted as much somewhere on his blog. Luke hasn't (so far) complained about that characterisation. But then again, I've not seen him complain about being labelled as an atheist either, Richard Carrier has Barnes listed as an atheist. But perhaps Barnes has complained privately. J.W.Wartick mentions Barnes (now) as a "cosmologist blogger", but initially referred to him as an "atheistic blogger" (there's a link back service active on Letters to Nature). It sort of makes sense for a theist like Barnes to go out of his way to correct his theist allies, but leave his atheist opponent's errors untouched.
I'd be interested to see where Barnes fully decloaks as a theist, if he actually has anywhere. Perhaps Scott can be more forthcoming.
And then there's the question of covertness. Scott accuses me of being covert, and by extension of hypocrisy because I have accused Barnes of being "a covert theist" (and here) – I have also accused him of being "a cloaked theist" – while maintaining anonymity on my part.
True, I am anonymous, but as a consequence I am not a public figure, I don't have a platform and less can be reasonably demanded of me. Any arguments I make have to stand or fall on their own merits, I cannot point to my academic papers, or degrees, or the adulation of fawning wannabe apologists (if there were some sort of atheist equivalent to the fervent followers of people like WLC and those who support him in his apologetic mission, like Luke Barnes). In any event, I am accusing Barnes of being coy about his theism and his theism is relevant because of his fixation with Fine Tuning. He knows as well as I do that for anyone to be at all credible as a proponent of Fine Tuning they have to be working from a purely scientific background. For this reason, I suspect, Barnes has wanted to keep his theistic leanings quiet. If Barnes is a raving theist with apologetic aspirations, then his interest in Fine Tuning is tainted. He knows it. I know it. But Scott Church either doesn't know it, or doesn't quite understand it.
And, thus, we come to poisoning the well.
Scott's complaint, as far as I can work out, relates to either my accusation that Barnes is a theist (thus pointing out that his work on Fine Tuning is tainted by his theistic partisanship) or my pointing out that Barnes is compromised by his association with Templeton. Is either of these a case of poisoning the well?
I don't think so. Let's look at Scott's link to the Wikipedia entry on what he calls the "poisoning the well fallacy". We are told that:
Poisoning the well (or attempting to poison the well) is a rhetorical device where adverse information about a target is pre-emptively presented to an audience, with the intention of discrediting or ridiculing everything that the target person is about to say. Poisoning the well can be a special case of argumentum ad hominem, and the term was first used with this sense by John Henry Newman in his work Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1864). The origin of the term lies in well poisoning, an ancient wartime practice of pouring poison into sources of fresh water before an invading army, to diminish the attacking army's strength.
It's not strictly speaking a fallacy after all, but a rhetorical device. However, it can be a special case of ad hominem, so perhaps we can let this slide.
There are other problems though. Poisoning the well is supposed to be pre-emptive. Nothing I've provided about Barnes has been pre-emptive. Also, going from the example provided by Wikipedia, the poisoning has to be irrelevant to issue at hand – and Barnes' theism is not irrelevant to the issue at hand. So, your Honour, I plead "not guilty".
I'd also like to point out that, in pointing out my anonymity the way Scott did, he may well have been attempting a bit of well-poisoning himself – perhaps as a demonstration of how they could be turned against me "with a great deal of force": You shouldn't listen to this guy, he's hasn't got a detailed history of himself on his blog and he hasn't told everyone his name!