LESSONS IN LOGIC: The Fallacy Of False Dilemma

If you read this blog for very long, you will find me talking about fallacies.  Fallacies are mistakes in the process of reasoning and critical thinking.  Another way to think of it is a fallacy is a logic trick, or as an attempt to cheat in an argument.  We encounter fallacies every day, it’s just that the majority of us do not recognize them for what they are.  The purpose of this series is to help us learn the most common fallacies, how they work and how to spot them in our daily lives.  The particular fallacy discussed in this post is called ‘False Dilemma.’

False dilemma can be thought of as the ‘black-or-white,’ or the ‘either-or‘ fallacy — mostly because this is the way the majority of us will encounter it.  Please read the full explanation of ‘false dilemma‘ by following the links I have provided.  They will give you a formal understanding of this fallacy.  However, I want to do my best to bring this down to ‘kitchen table talk’ for you.  I hope I succeed.

The most common way we will see this fallacy presented to us is in a news article, and editorial or a discussion where the person trying to persuade us to see things there way frames their point in a way that leaves us with one of two or three choices.  When they do this, they will usually present the choices so that one — the choice they prefer — looks much more acceptable than the other choice(s).  When they do this, unless these are — in fact — the only choices, and they have been presented in a totally factual way — the person who is trying to convince you to agree with them is using a fallacy.  In other words, they are using a logic trick, or they are trying to cheat to win their argument.  Here are a few examples:

Suppose someone shows you a story about the desperate plight of the homeless.  Then they tell you that no one is providing for their needs except the government.  Finally, they present you with the choice: either you should vote to help the homeless, or you are greedy or heartless.  This is a ‘false dilemma’ fallacy that I have paraphrased, but it came directly from actual news stories.

Here is another example:

Suppose I show you screen captures of several tweets from Donald Trump, and the screen captures I use are clearly outside the norm of typical Presidential commentary.  Then I tell you that these tweets prove that Donald Trump is either mentally unstable, or lacks the intellectual understanding necessary to be President.  This is also ‘false dilemma.’  Why?  Simple: there is another rational explanation.  It is possible that Donald Trump intentionally sends out these tweets just to aggravate and distract the media as well as his political opponents.  If this is the case, then that is an explanation where the President is neither intellectually nor mentally unqualified.  Here again, I pulled this example from recent headlines, and I will leave you with a thought that will demonstrate why the media has been intentionally committing false dilemma in this regard.  Have you ever noticed that there is a correlation between when President Trump puts out a crazy sounding tweet and when he is doing something behind the scenes that we only find out about after he succeeds in getting it done?  Well, that could easily be evidence that Trump is tweeting with a purpose, and that this tactic has — so far — been wildly successful. 

This is how false dilemma works and, now that you know how to spot it, if you start looking, you will find it being used everywhere — and by people on all sides of the political isle. So do that: start looking for it, and when you find it, decide however you want, but know that the person who presented that false dilemma is most likely trying to trick you.

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