Beware the false dichotomy

There are many logical fallacies in our world, used innocently and on purpose to mislead us from the great truths available. One day I hope to provide a more exhaustive resource, but for now this will serve as a sample.

A logical fallacy is a piece of reasoning that appears sensible and conclusive, but is not.

Such is the false dichotomy. A false dichotomy is presented as a situation or decision with only two outcomes, when in fact there are many more avenues.

For example, in our world right now, Black Lives Matter is a hot topic. A false dichotomy would be whether a person supports them or not. Only two choices, and one makes a person look like a racist, so there is kind of only one choice.

This is false. There are many levels and kinds of support. Idealogical, logistical, financial. Do I post on Facebook? Do I feed protestors? Am I a protestor? Do I insert my body between a police officer and the person they are beating or choking?

So it is with many situations. There are almost always more than two choices in a situation.

The Bait

This fallacy is inviting because it’s easy. We want easy, simple, direct. It provides a sense of confidence that we made a good decision. We want to be sure. The problem is that this desire is used against us.

The Trap

The false dichotomy is used to manipulate us by eliminating all the choices the presenter doesn’t want us to see, and we are left with only two: the one they want us to pick, and the one they are hoping we don’t want to pick. See the manipulation?

By hiding all the other choices, and making one of the two undesirable, the presenter has herded us to THEIR desired outcome.

The Prod

Urgency is used to force the decision. “This opportunity only exists now. Hurry!”. Again with the herding! Be wary of anyone insisting on your urgency. There are situations where their motives may be pure, and many where they won’t be.

The Escape

I have recognized that, in a false dichotomy, there is always a third option: Gather more information.

This option kills the urgency to decide, and can lead to the discovery of more options.

Also recognize that just because someone else is herding you to a decision doesn’t necessarily make that option bad. You may still choose it, but choose it on YOUR terms, for your reasons.

Challenge: Recognize the false dichotomies in your own thinking and the thinking of others. Explore the third option. Observe how things change or end up differently because you did.

Good vs Good Enough

In order to get this post right, I need to clarify something up front.

In modern English, we are not precise enough in our verbiage, and this causes us problems. The word ‘good’ is used to describe things ranging from quality to effectiveness to mood to morality. The problem is that this word is used so generally that when using it for one thing, people can assume another thing is implied. This is muddying the conversation. So let’s be more precise.

Now I need to explain the difference between relative and absolute references. 

A relative reference is always in relation to something else. An example would be: That item is two shelves below the top shelf. Note the preposition ‘below’, indicating the relationship.

Other ways we use relative references: Better/Worse, Higher/Lower, etc.

Absolute referencing is unique. There are no duplicates, and comparison is not required. One example of this is a mailing address. Many are similar, but no two are the same, and while they can relate, they don’t have to.

So why does this matter at all?

Because people will use one to try and claim the value of the other. Sales people do this all the time. They’ll tell you all about how their product is better, but they might fall short on how it will meet your needs. Or they will flip it if their product isn’t better. Knowing both ways of looking at it makes you a smarter consumer.

Politicians will use statistics to soon something any way they want. Understanding the value, or lack of value, can help you cut through the spin.

For instance, one politician might claim to be tougher on crime than their opponent. And they may be right. But that doesn’t make them effective against crime. They can be relatively tougher and still be inadequate.

Challenge: Recognize when someone is using absolute or relative referencing, and try to weed out any assumptions about one being the other.