Raise your hand if you enjoy having your motives impugned when you’re engaged in conversation, taking part in a debate, or explaining how you voted.


A mostly genial texting thread with family members got me thinking about the prevalence of this type of cognitive error in today’s political environment. It’s everywhere on Facebook and Twitter, and in the popular culture, and shows up in the press, too. To wit: throwing around terms that end with –ist or –phobe; saying a position or a vote is based on hate; accusing others of greed or self-dealing; claiming that an American political leader wants to starve your grandma or destroy the environment or jail the opposition or ruin the country… you get the point.

Impugning motives is an effective way to dismiss or even otherize people you disagree with. It makes great talk radio but it’s a dodge from making or evaluating a case based on facts and reason.

Poisoning the well is a related tactic, where you make a preemptive strike against your opponent in order to discredit whatever case that person might be about to make. Person A is a known liar; keep that in mind when she speaks. Person B is an atheist; why hear what he has to say about philosophy? Person C is an evangelical Christian; don’t let her influence policy about marriage. Person D is a man; he has no standing to question the morality of abortion. Person E is white; she has no place criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement.

And then there are remarks like, “You can’t trust those results because _______ (insert your bête noire) paid for the study.” This is a lazy way to discredit results that you don’t like, without having to actually evaluate a study’s validity under the scientific method. It happens all the time, especially in the environmental movement, and it’s another example of poisoning the well. Even reporters do this from time to time.

See, everyone knows you can’t believe scientific studies that show Round Up is a safe product, since the science was conducted by “industry scientists” and paid for by Monsanto. Right?  Poisoning the well. Or, you shouldn’t trust climate scientists whose livelihoods depend on obtaining grants from the government. Poisoning the well. Speaking of climate science, in that arena poisoning the well extends not just to who paid for a study (they take money from Exxon!) but whether you have been fairly or unfairly branded a skeptic by one group or another. Hint: when you see the epithet, denier, you can be sure someone’s poisoning a well!

For my part, I’ll try to assume most folks bring benign motives to their positions, even when I think they’re wrong or haven’t done their homework. After all, love trumps hate…


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