Monday, February 14, 2011

Fallacies (4) - false dichotomy

False dichotomy* is the fallacy of presenting two alternatives when in fact more than two alternatives are available. If done deliberately, it is a form of rhetorical bullying. Here’s a more detailed definition.

Two historical examples of false dichotomy


Fifty-four Forty or Fight” was the campaign slogan of James Knox Polk (pictured). Mr. Polk and other Democrats wanted the U.S. Government to control all the land in the Pacific Northwest as far north as 54° 40′ N. (The government of Great Britain controlled Canada.)

Clearly there were more alternatives than a latitude and a war. For example, what if the government of Great Britain offered Mr. Polk the entire land mass of Australia? Would he have turned it down, stamped his foot like a child, and insisted on Fifty-four Forty?

In fact, after Mr. Polk was elected U.S. President, the two governments reached a compromise at 49° N. Not one shot had been fired.


Florence Reece wrote the song “Which Side Are You On?” A bullying tone is unmistakable in the lyrics, which say that a coal miner in Harlan County (KY) who doesn’t join the United Mine Workers is “a thug for (mining boss) J. H. Claire.”

Clearly a miner would have had several additional alternatives, including seeking another line of work (I’m not saying this alternative would have been easy or attractive, only that it existed).

There is nothing wrong with asking people to choose either of two alternatives. The fallacy – and the bullying – is in the refusal to consider alternatives beyond the two. By refusing to consider them, the speaker or writer attempts to forestall negotiation and to distract the listener or reader from examining the situation for himself. He’s like a used-car salesman trying to hustle someone into signing a contract.

The Takeaway: In any formal writing or formal public speaking, be careful whenever you present an either-or choice. You may be overlooking additional alternatives, which is the fallacy of false dichotomy. Often some of the additional alternatives are obvious (to intelligent readers and listeners if not the general public), as in the above examples. False dichotomy can make you look like a fool or a bully. Your readers or listeners may call you on it.

Related: Fallacies (2) – cherry picking

See disclaimer.

*Also called false dilemma, the either-or fallacy, fallacy of false choice, black and white thinking, or the fallacy of exhaustive hypotheses. More here. Dichotomy, from the Greek for cut in two, means division into two usually contradictory parts or opinions. More here.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the blog on false dichotomy. I'm working on a newspaper opinion article and needed a definition and some examples to jump start my thinking.