Furthest Right

Reframing a question: the false dilemma

As we near yet another warm political season, we’re going to see a lot more of this in public: the logical fallacy known as a false dilemma.

In this fallacy, others re-define your argument to fit into two categories of their own definition, one of which is conveniently weaker than another.

Example 1:

You: I think doctors need to be able to turn away any patient they don’t want to treat.

Them: So you’re against the public option for healthcare — how can you be so cruel to your fellow citizens?

You and they are talking about completely unrelated things, and it wasn’t you who did it. As the definition of false dilemma, bifurcation and false dichotomy — they’re different names for the same fallacy — states:

Definition: In false dichotomy, the arguer sets up the situation so it looks like there are only two choices. The arguer then eliminates one of the choices, so it seems that we are left with only one option: the one the arguer wanted us to pick in the first place. But often there are really many different options, not just two—and if we thought about them all, we might not be so quick to pick the one the arguer recommends!

Example: “Caldwell Hall is in bad shape. Either we tear it down and put up a new building, or we continue to risk students’ safety. Obviously we shouldn’t risk anyone’s safety, so we must tear the building down.” The argument neglects to mention the possibility that we might repair the building or find some way to protect students from the risks in question—for example, if only a few rooms are in bad shape, perhaps we shouldn’t hold classes in those rooms.


I like this source because they present fallacies in conversational form, and not the more obvious, simple-variables, demonstrative form I’ve used above. Ideally, you’d be able to see both or switch between the two, but it’s a challenge to keep few words on the page to avoid the dreaded “tl;dr” effect, which is as old as humanity. We like reading when there’s a feedback loop providing constant valuable or fun information.

So now you’ve seen this fallacy in raw form and conversation. How might it apply to the politics ahead of us?

Example 2:

You: I don’t think socialism will provide a stable society.

Them: So you’re against the people? You’re either for big government, or you’re defender of the people. I prefer to let empathy and compassion guide me and I defend the people.

Why is this a fallacy? Because in talking about socialism, you’re talking about the whole of the society — which is more than its parts. They’ve invented this idea of “the people” which is not only vague but incorrect, as they’re probably talking about only part of the population as individuals. You’re talking about whether the infrastructure of society operates, not whether people in the short-term get what they feel they need. There’s a crucial difference in that we can have a bad harvest, and people can lack the food they need, but if we give them the seed corn, then our economy collapses because we cannot plant next year’s crop.

Example 3:

You: Historically, diversity and importing of foreign labor have not worked for a nation, and have generally conveyed it into a third world state itself.

Them: So you’re a racist? Either everyone gets along in the same country as one big happy, and anyone anywhere can go anywhere else, or you’re racist because you exclude them from your nation.

The above is a fallacy you will see quite a bit in the future.

You are talking about the ideal way to structure a society.

They are talking in pure binary: either you accept that all people should be everywhere, or you’re a racist.

They are not clear on the fact that there may be more reasons to oppose diversity than “racism,” which clearly needs definition.

Here’s another good one:

Example 4:

You: We should support the troops, even if we oppose the war.

Them: I support the troops — by bringing them home!

This one is more subtle. They have set up a dichotomy where the troops being at home is good, and anything else is bad, so supporting the troops must involve bringing them home.

You were suggesting something more generic along the lines of “even if you disagree with our policy, don’t take it out on our soldiers,” which is a historical reference to the treatment of Viet Nam veterans in the 1970s.

The false dilemma fallacy shows up more than you’d think. Often called a strawman, the habit of re-framing an argument so that it exists in binary states where one option obviously sounds better is a tactic as old as humanity.

Real-World Example: “Population: Overconsumption is the real problem” by Fred Pearce

Let’s walk through the writings of a dishonest person and see how many fallacies we can find. I say dishonest because this person has the glow of gold in his eyes, since he knows if he says something that pleases the notions people already have, they’ll reward him by claiming he’s a good, profound writer.

THERE is a pervading myth that efforts to fight climate change and other environmental perils will be to no avail unless we “do something” about population growth. Even seasoned analysts talk about the threat of “exponential” population growth. But there is no exponential growth. In most of the world fertility rates are falling fast, and the countries where population growth continues are those that contribute least to our planetary predicament.

Here, he makes the fundamental sleight of hand used in this article: population growth is falling right now, so he assumes that this smaller cycle is the bigger cycle. He does not address the long-term picture which clearly shows an upward rising growth curve since industrialization, which is obvious to anyone with half a brain since we’ve had fluctuations (what he mistakes for the overall trend) every other decade but growth has on the whole continued. By redefining the long-term picture as the short-term picture, he has created a false dilemma.

Why is this dishonest writer saying this? He wants us to believe in the path of least resistance: if we in the first world start using both sides of the toilet paper, each buy a Prius, turning off lights, washing out condoms, and so on, it’ll solve the problem. What he doesn’t note is that our real energy and carbon use comes from infrastructure: hospitals, schools, transportation, manufacturing, stores, agriculture and so on. Giving up those things will be a step backward indeed. But it sounds better to an audience to construe us in the first world as benevolent givers who sacrifice things for themselves, than it does for us to say “oh well, we grew too fast, time for a cull.” He has at a most fundamental level confused politeness with reality.

But back to his list of fallacies:

Back in the late 1960s, when Paul Ehrlich wrote his seminal book The Population Bomb, rapid population growth was arguably the number 1 threat to the planet’s future. Many believed that only strict birth control could prevent doomsday. But after scandals about forced vasectomies in India and China’s draconian one-child policy, such views fell into disrepute.

We have here an ad populum fallacy, specifically a bandwagon fallacy, where “the arguer tries to convince the audience to do or believe something because everyone else (supposedly) does.” Indeed: fell into disrepute does not mean found to be incorrect, just unpopular.

Half a century ago, the worldwide average for the number of children a woman had was between five and six. Now she has 2.6.

Here’s that ugly false dilemma again, and it’s a very subtle one. Right now, she has 2.6 children on average; for how long does this cycle last? He’s telling us that we either accept his short-term view as the long-term view, or we’re wrong.

Half the world now has a fertility rate below the replacement level, which, allowing for girls who don’t make it to adulthood, is around 2.3. This includes most of Europe, east Asia, North America and the Caribbean.

Here he’s counting countries, not their population, to make his argument seem stronger.

This hasn’t yet stopped the world’s population from rising. It stands at 6.8 billion, and is growing by 75 million a year. This is mostly because the huge numbers of young women born during the 20th-century’s worldwide baby boom are still fertile: they may typically only have two children each, but that is still a lot of babies. Soon, however, if fertility rates continue to decline, each generation of women will be smaller than the last.

Here’s a subtle post hoc fallacy, of the nature “Assuming that because B comes after A, A caused B.” He assumes that because a huge number of young women were born in a baby boom, that’s the reason population is rising — even though it has consistently been rising without that condition being present.

Even if the world population does stabilise soon and starts to glide downwards, that won’t solve the world’s environmental problems. The real issue is not overpopulation but overconsumption – mostly in rich countries that have long since given up adding substantial numbers to their population.

He hasn’t proved his argument, so he’ll repeat it and hope you don’t figure it out.

Take one measure: carbon dioxide emissions. Stephen Pacala, director of the Princeton Environmental Institute, calculates that the world’s richest half billion people – that’s about 7 per cent of the global population – are responsible for 50 per cent of the world’s emissions. Meanwhile, the poorest 50 per cent are responsible for just 7 per cent of emissions. One American or European is more often than not responsible for more emissions than an entire village of Africans.

New Scientist

He’s trotted out the dreaded hasty generalization in a subtle form: he’s telling us that carbon dioxide emissions “equal” the environmental problem as a whole. He’s disregarding land use, slash and burn agriculture, overhunting and overfishing, and several thousand other problems in order to make his point.

Hopefully the example of Fred Pearce’s dishonest, crowd-pleasing, illogical and error-ridden article will show why it’s important to be able to recognize logical fallacies.

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