Skeptic Tank Text Archive File

---
Master Index Current Directory Index Go to SkepticTank Go to Human Rights activist Keith Henson Go to Scientology cult

Skeptic Tank!

Front Page: summer 1993 POISONING THE WELL Logical fallacies of every conceivable kind are much in evidence in apolo- getic literature written in defense of the Bible inerrancy doctrine, but few are more evident than the fallacy of poisoning the well. This fallacy occurs when a debater figuratively offers an audience the choice of drinking from his "untainted" well or from others that he has unfairly contaminated. "You can believe Jones and the atheistic philosophy he embraces," a preacher strapped for evidence to support his inerrancy belief might proclaim, "or you can believe God and his word." Many in the audience may not even know what "atheistic philosophy" stands for, but they know that it has to be something bad. Haven't they heard it condemned enough by preachers like the one in our example? So they fall for the trick and opt to drink from the "untainted well of God's word." They certainly don't want to be caught sympathizing with atheistic philosophy. The poisoned-well fallacy can be a composite of many logical flaws, but it almost always includes at least two: argumentum ad hominem and begging the question. Our hypothetical preacher, for example, has declared, "You can believe Jones and his atheistic philosophy," (argumentum ad hominem, attack- ing the opposition rather than his argument), "or you can believe God and his word," (begging the question, assuming rather than proving major claims, i.e., God exists and the Bible is his word). As far as actual proof of his claim is concerned, the preacher has proven nothing, but he has probably persuaded a lot of people already predisposed to his position to remain sympathetic to it. Persuasive techniques like this can be effective in the hands of demagogical preachers more interested in obtaining converts than establishing truth. For the poisoned-well fallacy to work, it must be applied to a claim for which invincibility is widely assumed. If Jones in our example should say to his audience, "You can believe my opponent and the Bible he embraces or you can believe me and my atheistic philosophy," no appreciable poisoning of the well could result, because there would probably be very little predisposition in the audience to believe that atheistic philosophy is true. In a typical audience, however, there would be considerable predisposition to believe that the Bible is God's inspired word. Inerrancy proponents know this and exploit it for all it's worth. If inerrancy defenders encounter evidence that clearly disputes their claim, they will never let a simple thing like facts get in their way. They simply reinterpret the counterevidence, no matter how overwhelming it may be, to make it appear in some way to support or at least not contradict their inerrancy claim. Their reinterpretations are quite often very imaginative and at times even absurdly far-fetched. But the upshot of it all is still the same. To an audience desperately wanting to drink from the well that says the Bible is God's inspired word, all the others appear contaminated, so they are left with the same choice. They can believe Jones and his atheistic philosophy or they can believe God and his word. "If I can show you how it could have been, then you can't really say that there is a contradiction." This has become the theme song of inerrancy defenders who are experts at poisoning the wells when confronted with evi- dence that clearly disputes their claim. With techniques that they have almost developed into an art, they can reinterpret any discrepant statements and facts to give them at least a semblance of concordance. The only prob- lem is that their reinterpretations (see POISON, p. 9) are almost always incredibly far-fetched. Long-time readers of TSR have seen this approach over and over again in 1 the articles of fundamentalist writers seeking to rebut our claim that the Bible contains errors. Sometimes these writers will confine themselves to the issues and seek only to present their speculative, how-it-could-have-been scenarios, but often they feel the need to pour at least a little poison into the well. "The reason Mr. Till is a skeptic and not a saint today," wrote Steve Gunter, "appears to be primarily due to a massive misreading of the text and too much study of noninspired works" ("Much Ado about Nothing," Autumn 1991, p. 7). "If Mr. Till spent half as much time trying to reconcile these 'so- called' difficulties as he spends finding them," said Jerry McDonald, "he would find far fewer difficulties in the Bible" ("The Blood of Jezreel," Spring 1991, p. 3). Such comments as these are obvious attempts to offer two sources of water to the readers, the well of skepticism or the well of saint- hood and the Bible. They do nothing to prove inerrancy, but admittedly they do impress those who are already predisposed to believe that the Bible is "God's inspired word." Bibliolaters know this, of course, and that is why they spend so much time trying to poison the well of rationalism. ******************************** FREE SUBSCRIPTION: A free one-year subscription to The Skeptical Review can be obtained by writing to P. O. Box 617, Canton, IL 61520-0617. 2

---

E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank