Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Poisoning the Well

From Paolo Virno we adopted the strategy of exploiting the overlap between logical fallacies and joke work, in order to switch the figure ground relationship between rules and cases organizing our policy aporia.  In the case of my policy question (the Superfund site in Gainesville, Florida, involving the potential for pollution of the city well field), it is impossible to resist starting this experiment with the fallacy known as poisoning the well.
Fallacy Joke

This sort of "reasoning" involves trying to discredit what a person might later claim by presenting unfavorable information (be it true or false) about the person. This "argument" has the following form:
  1. Unfavorable information (be it true or false) about person A is presented.
  2. Therefore any claims person A makes will be false.
This sort of "reasoning" is obviously fallacious. The person making such an attack is hoping that the unfavorable information will bias listeners against the person in question and hence that they will reject any claims he might make. However, merely presenting unfavorable information about a person (even if it is true) hardly counts as evidence against the claims he/she might make. This is especially clear when Poisoning the Well is looked at as a form of ad Homimem in which the attack is made prior to the person even making the claim or claims.
The effectiveness of this fallacy may be seen in contemporary American politics.  Conservative talk show hosts and Tea Party movement activists have poisoned the well of the "lamestream media" (Palin) to the point that a significant percentage of citizens are immune to fact-checking rebuttals.  For example, no amount of evidence proving that President Obama was born in the United States (Hawaii) can stop "birther" error, because the media reporting the evidence are rejected in advance. 

Comedians such as Stephen Colbert already exploit the obvious potential for humour related to this frame of mind, and the tragic potential is also apparent.  The question in our context is to explore the electrate dimension of this phenomenon, to discover the affective ratios of nonsense for a politics and ethics of well-being.  Reason is not the measure of order in a dromosphere.