Friday, October 23, 2009


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 multicoloured. As it’s hard to argue a case with so many variations, we 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 imbedded 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] we’re seeing a lot of false dichotomies that are manifested 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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