Thursday, May 26, 2011

Poisoning the Process of Health Reform Debate

Poisoning the well (or attempting to poison the well) is a logical fallacy 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. 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 in order to diminish the invading army's strength.

In general usage, poisoning the well is the provision of any information that may produce a biased result. For example, if a woman tells her friend, "I think I might buy this beautiful dress", then asks her friend's opinion of the dress, she has "poisoned the well", as her previous comment could affect her friend's response.


May 26, 2011 -I recently met a judge at a social gathering. We fell into a conversation about the raging health care reform debate. He informed me, in roughly these words, “The process has been poisoned. Americans are fair-minded, and they want a fair-minded debate. When the Democrats passed the health reform bill, they ignored anything the Republicans or other critics had to say. They passed the bill without a single Republican vote, and in doing so, ridiculed and humiliated the political opposition and deprived the public of an honest debate. They did not let the process go forward as the public expects and deserves in national legislation affecting everyone. They poisoned the process. That is why the public opposes the reform bill and favors reform and why Republicans are united in their hostility to the bill. ”

Everyone, of course, poisons the process in a different way, the Republicans by labeling Democrats as Big Government demagogs, the Democrats by characterizing Republicans are Big Business pettifogs.

If you seek an example of current process poisoning, look no further than the current Medicare debate. Democrats ran a TV ad showing some malevolent male, presumably a Republican, pushing Grandma off the cliff. The ad worked in a conservative New York state district (NY-26) in which a Democrat upset the Republican. Republicans will now accuse Democrats of poisoning the process by not discussing a Republican alternative to save Medicare. One man’s meat is another man’s poison.

As the judge said to me in a follow-up email to our discussion,

“ The Executive and Legislative Branches, when they are making decisions that have enormous public consequences, must take process into account. When they make decisions in the dark, when the public senses that they have not heard all sides, they create a "side issue" which poisons the final product. The public do not express their dissatisfaction in lawyer-like "due process" language; rather, they express it in other ways. But at the core, the process is what concerns them. I learned long ago -- watching juries in difficult cases, among other things -- that the American public has an in-bread sense of justice. They abhor unfairness.”

Political dialogue deserves due process too.