Faulty logic: False Dichotomy

It’s time for number two in a series of posts on faulty logic. Today’s fallacy:

False Dichotomy

We like things to be black or white, tall or short, here or there. We like to consider two sides to every story.

Unfortunately, there aren’t always two sides. Sometimes there’s only one; more often, there are multitudes. Many facets on the stone. Nooks and crannies in abundance. Things are usually not either black or white, but multicolored. As it’s hard to argue a case with so many variations, we tend to narrow the scope, and argue one side against another.

The trouble comes because we tend to define the two sides in a lopsided manner, revealing our biases and mischaracterizing one side or the other. If you’re not “pro-life”, what are you? Anti-life? Of course not: it’s a false dichotomy.

Either you supported the invasion of Iraq, or you’re on the side of the terrorists.
Either you want to stop hurting our children with vaccines, or you don’t care about the children.
Either you believe in God, or you’re an amoral robot.

False dichotomies, all. (And, of course, the examples I chose themselves form a kind of false dichotomy, by implying that only certain people — characterized here as “people who disagree with me” — argue from false dichotomies. But it’s not true: we all fall into this trap from time to time. More significantly, we all go this way purposefully sometimes, as a rhetorical technique.)

It’s important to learn to recognize the false dichotomies when we see them — they’re not usually laid out as clearly as above, but are embedded within the argument. To tease it out, look for any too-succinct characterization of your interlocutor’s opponent. When she removed the complexity, she likely removed a lot of the reality, as well.

In the current health-insurance debate[1] over keeping what we have versus changes we might make to our current system, we’re seeing a lot of false dichotomies that are manifesting as flat characterizations of “the alternative,” as though that were the only possible alternative. I’m inclined to say that if we don’t go to a single-payer system, what we’ll have will still be broken. That’s my stand, so it’s right, of course… but it’s a false dichotomy. There certainly are alternatives that can be set up to work. Others say that a “public option” will give us socialized medicine (whatever that really means). Another false dichotomy.

Here’s a good set, through a chain of faulty reasoning: a public option for insurance becomes “government-run health care”, leading to “health-care rationing” for the elderly and disabled. When I see a chain of reasoning like that, my Skeptic Sense tingles, and I start breaking it down. In this case, we have the claim that either the government stays entirely out of health insurance or we end up with government-run care. There’s the first false dichotomy. The next step is that if the government runs health care, it will have to focus on saving money, not on giving care. There’s the second problem: does anyone really think that private health insurance isn’t trying to save money as well? Now, with the government needing to save money, they will withhold care from “hopeless cases.” Those are all presented as black-and-white choices, when, of course, they’re not.

If we can pull apart the fallacies, we can get to the things we really do have to solve. How do we make sure people who need care get it? How do we pay for it? How do we manage it? There aren’t simple answers to these, and false dichotomies only get in the way of working through them.

The same is true in other domains. Breaking things down into alternatives makes them easier to argue. But if we’re not careful in how we break them down, we actually block reasoned, productive arguments.


[1] We’re not really arguing about health care; we’re arguing about what to do about health insurance. Discussions of the quality of care certainly enter into it, but the real point of the issue is how to pay for the care we need.

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5 comments to Faulty logic: False Dichotomy

  • If you are not for us, you are against us. To produce that question, people fight wars. That may be called false logic in a false dichotomy, but it becomes real when reality intensifies (e.g. the run-up to WWII, when Bergson noticed this and called it intuition of duration).

    People always need to have a stand and find out whether or not others agree, to find independent confirmation of the distinctions and differentiations they make in their minds and attitudes, and to see if it deserves attention.

    These are not fallacies, but steps towards a higher level of morality.

  • And you think the choices are exactly “for” or “against”, with no other options? How about, “I’m with you, but here’s an alternative way to achieve your goal.”? How about a dozen other ways?

    The point is that when you create a false dichotomy, you block critical thinking and reasonable alternatives.

    Also, keep in mind that not all dichotomies are false: there are, indeed, cases where there are two choices (or perhaps only two that aren’t summarily ruled out).

  • Lee Tilson

    I agree with your analysis of the arguments at hand and endorse it. Let us take it one more step.

    To quote my favorite thinker, Larry Powers, can we ask why we find this fallacy seductive? How may we avoid this kind of intellectual seduction in the future?

    If there is no further analysis, we might be left with a simple dichotomy: a. good logic and b. faulty logic?

    Is that a false dichotomy as well?

    • Hm. I guess we can look at that question two ways (ahem):

      Strictly speaking, logic is either valid or not — that is, good or faulty. Strictly speaking, there are no other options. So, strictly speaking, it’s a valid dichotomy, not a false one.

      On the other hand, this stuff isn’t mathematical logic, and somewhat falls into the realm of philosophy, or at least of opinion, depending upon the subject under discussion. There will certainly be cases where one party thinks the dichotomy is valid, and the other thinks it’s false. And any time we get into discussion of weighing risks, making value judgments, or, as Benny points out in the comments to my “On being a skeptic” post, making political decisions, we go beyond logical argument.

      So maybe we have at least:
      a. good logic,
      b. faulty logic,
      c. my opinion, and
      d. your obstinacy.

      [The added items on the list come from the old joke about conjugation: "I am firm in my convictions," "You are hard-headed and stubborn," "He is an obstinate idiot."]

  • Anonymous

    what is the definition of faulty logic

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