Monday, 11 January 2016

Poisoning the Well and Other Crimes

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:

neopolitan,

“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!

My arguments don't rest on my personal history or my name, Mr Church, so your attempts fail.  Please try again.

8 comments:

  1. Neopolitan,

    Wow... I'm flattered to see that my comments merit a dedicated post at your blog. Thank you! :-) Here are some thoughts regarding your response (I'll break them up over a few posts so as to stay within the character limit, and put them on Letters to Nature too)...

    "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... If Barnes is a raving theist with apologetic aspirations, then his interest in Fine Tuning is tainted..."

    It's tainted if, and only if, his published works contain specific errors and/or omissions that impact his conclusions and are a direct consequence of his theism. You haven't come anywhere near to demonstrating this.

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  2. "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'... It's not strictly speaking a fallacy after all, but a rhetorical device... 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."

    Go back and read the Wikipedia article again carefully, and you'll see that poisoning the well arguments are based on unfavorable information that can be either true or false, relevant or irrelevant (Structure section, first form, point 1). To establish relevance you need to show exactly where, and how Luke's published works are invalidated by his belief in God. Since you have not, there are only two valid motives for drawing attention to it; a) To undermine trust in his work without actually doing so, or; b) To make yourself feel good by belittling him. You don't strike me as either a bully or a coward, so b) is out. And a) is pre-emptive, and this is a textbook example of poisoning the well. BTW, Wikipedia also has a List of Fallacies. Rhetorical or not, Poisoning the Well is listed there under Red Herrings -> Ad Hominem.

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  3. "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! ... My arguments don't rest on my personal history or my name, Mr Church, so your attempts fail."

    You're missing the point. I never said your arguments rest on your name or personal history, nor was I trying to poison your well (it's a fallacy, remember?). What I said was that by poisoning the well you're relying on an argument that, even if it weren't a fallacy, could also be used against you. You aren't just shooting yourself in the foot... you're doing so twice. Which is precisely why I think you should stay away from this sort of argument. ;-)

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  4. "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 wasn't making a larger case for atheist "crimes" so an extensive bibliography of them wasn't necessary. Again, my only point was that poisoning the well cuts both ways, and your reliance on it puts you at risk. I included the Dawkins and Krauss links only because they happen to be particularly egregious examples of how it does. You've been arguing that a "raving theist" agenda = Tainted Fine Tuning Science with the implication that a raving anti-theist one doesn't. Sorry Buddy, but you can't have your cake and eat it. If it's fair game for you to claim Luke's work is tainted by theism without documenting where or how, I have every right to claim Dawkins' and Krauss' work is tainted by anti-theism when I actually can document their blundering incompetence and negligence. Go back and read my Dawkins essay carefully and you'll see that it had nothing to do with whether the arguments in the God Delusion hinge on the specific "raving" Dawkins attributed to Pat Robinson. I was drawing attention to the recklessness and unprofessionalism with which he defended it. Even a few minutes' worth of fact-checking would've revealed that the alleged Robertson comment he spoke of never happened... it was a joke posted by a comedy website. That incovenient fact went right past him because was so caught up in his own anti-theist wet dream that he never got around to vetting his own damn sources or even read them carefully. If poisoning the well constitutes a valid argument, then this takes the word tainted to a whole new and terrifying level that you have to answer for, and your allegations about Luke's motives pale in comparison. Well it isn't valid, and you shouldn't be doing it.

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    Replies
    1. Ooops... Robertson, not "Robinson." :-)

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  5. We could go back and forth here with tit-for-tat and I doubt anyone would be the wiser for it. Instead, let me leave you with this. The economist John Maynard Keynes once said, "When my information changes I alter my views. What do you do Sir?" If you want your own views to be convincing, stop trying to discredit others and concentrate on providing information that can't be discredited. If you succeed, your claims will stand on their own and you'll earn the respect of those who don't agree with you. Casting aspersions on the motives of others only makes you look petulant. Especially when when you base your attacks on well-known logical fallacies. I know you can do better than this, and if you do, everyone will benefit.

    Best.

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  6. I think you have over-estimated the scope of my endeavours. I’ll leave the pointing out of Luke’s specific errors to those who work in his field (if there are such errors, I am not saying there necessarily are any remember, I am only criticising his clandestine support of the cosmological equivalents of the ID crowd).

    I’m quite confident though that as research continues we will develop better and better theories and models and some of the questions raised by apparent fine-tuning will be answered, forcing your god to retreat further into smaller and smaller gaps.

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  7. Have to agree with Scott on pretty much everything.

    Neopolitan, your first post was indeed a well-poisoning fallacy because it attacked the credibility of the proponent of a view rather than critiquing the view itself.

    In addition, your charge that Barnes' alleged theism (if he is in fact a theist) renders his work on fine-tuning "tainted" makes absolutely no sense, because the merits of a view stand or fall on its own qualities, not on the qualities of its proponents.

    In both these cases, you've advanced poor objections, and your best move would be to withdraw the objections rather than keep defending the indefensible.

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