[Originally published as Logic Lessons: Genetic Fallacy and Poisoning the Well]
I have a pair of fallacies for you where the person is attacked rather than allowing a discussion of the ideas to be presented on their own merits. This pair works well together, and sometimes the distinctions are blurry (even some of my sources disagree since the ad hominem can merge with the “red herring” distraction). Since I have been subjected to this kind of “reasoning” lately, I can draw from my own experiences.
But I have to be careful because I have been known to mix up the Genetic Fallacy and its close cousin, the Fallacy of Composition.
First, the Poisoning the Well fallacy
This fallacy is committed by someone who wants to discredit a person and ignore whatever he or she is about to present — a preemptive strike if you will. The person it is directed toward looks bad before he even begins to speak.
When discussing creationism and showing the flaws in evolution, people have said that “Your Creationist sources are all disproved.” Also, my news sources in other articles have been rejected out of hand because they are by Christian organizations or Fox News. My references are not even examined by most of the critics, and they poison the well against anyone else who may have been considering checking them.
Meet its cousin, the Genetic Fallacy.
This says that something is true or untrue because of its source instead of its merit. It is a kind of red herring argument because the user seeks to distract from the points being raised.
Two points to make this more confusing: It is not always a fallacy to question the source of an argument or proposition, and sometimes the Genetic Fallacy is an ad hominem, but not always. To stay with the creationism example, I have had my arguments rejected simply because I am a creationist. Or, my statements have been rejected because I am a Christian.
Both Poisoning the Well and the Genetic Fallacy are often used as manipulations in an argument. Watch for them, and call “foul!” Because once these are appealed to, good reasoning, presentations, ideas, and logic are rejected. If something is untrue or invalid, it should be exposed for the error it contains instead of ridiculing the idea, its origin, or its presenter, capice? To me, this stinks of intellectual cowardice.
Even if you cannot exactly identify if a fallacy is Poisoning the Well or the Genetic Fallacy, you will still be able to point out the fact that the other party is not exactly playing fair.
Now I have a bonus for you. Remember Norman the Paranoid Troll? (His response to me giving him that name was to call me “Norman” right back.) Take a look at this:
Your assignment: Spot the ad hominem, Poisoning the Well and Genetic Fallacies. Be forewarned, though. They blend.