False Dichotomy

A Lesson in Logic

I don’t have a specific order I want to look at the fallacies in, at least not yet. I just finished my Master’s degree, so it’ll be a week before my life takes on any semblance of organization again. All that aside, I decided to let it be dictated by the news. Logical fallacies happen everywhere that people make arguments, and learning them will help you sort out good arguments from bad, and help you understand why an argument that feels wrong is (provided it is). Get ready to learn the first logical fallacy, the false dichotomy

Steve McQueen

Dear Paul Walker, move over, bro.

A false dichotomy happens when someone presents two or more cases as the only cases possible. If we see someone speeding through traffic and I say “They’re either stupid or crazy,” that’s a false dichotomy. There are lots of reasons for them to be speeding that don’t involve being stupid or crazy. Maybe they’re rushing someone to the hospital, or what we’re seeing is a setup for a scene in a movie. This isn’t restricted to two options, either. Any number of options can fit into this fallacy. So there are two key parts to the false dichotomy. First, the statement has to say “P or Q”, and insist that those are the only choices. Second, there have to be legitimate alternatives to that.

Now, you might think that this gives grounds to call any set of options a false dichotomy. After all, there are always other things that might happen. But what makes something a false dichotomy is the fact that the options presented aren’t the only legitimate ones. Some statements are just real dichotomies. If I say “Either I go to class today, or I don’t,” that’s a real dichotomy. I can’t do both, and I have to do either one or the other. There’s lots of things I might do if I’m not in class, but the statement doesn’t care about what I’m doing, only that I’m not in class.

An interesting example of a false dichotomy hit the news recently, thanks to Republican senate nominee Todd Akin. He presented it in a slightly different way, by creating a second option and insisting there are two options, instead of just one. In an interview on a St. Louis tv station, he was asked about his opposition to abortions in the instance of pregnancy from rape. His response (excerpted, read the whole thing at the New York Times) “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Now, let’s set aside the fact that he’s confused women with female sparrows, who actually do have biological ways of selecting sperm, and focus on the first part. Let’s also set aside the sentiment of him saying there’s a non-zero number of rape victims who weren’t “Legitimately” raped.

Akin divides the concept of rape into “Legitimate” and “Illegitimate”, but doesn’t provide any grounds for doing so, partly because there aren’t any. Rape is an act of sexual congress committed without the consent of one of the parties. The key is consent, which isn’t something you can do in half measures. Look at all the license agreements for your software (not the part you never read, but the thing you click to make it go away). It’s “Accept” or “Decline”. There’s no “Kind of accept”. Since one of the options Akin presents isn’t legitimate, it’s a false dichotomy.

And that’s the first logical fallacy on Concept Crucible. I don’t want to focus on political figures for real world examples, but I take them as I find them, and politicians spend a lot of time talking in the public eye. Come back next Saturday for a different fallacy, and on Wednesday for my ethics advice roundup. You either will, or you won’t.


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