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While teaching my first logic class (as a grad student, Baylor University, Fall of 2008), I made a rookie mistake. A student asked me if the false dilemma fallacy was the same thing as the false dichotomy fallacy. I said yes.
I know, I know–it seems cringey and facepalmy now.
What’s that–you weren’t thinking that was cringey and facepalmy?
Well, I guess it’s time for a lesson in logic. Let’s start with a few observations:
–There is no such thing as an official or perfect list of informal fallacies.
–There is no such thing as an official or perfect system for categorizing informal fallacies.
–There is no such thing as an official or perfect list of names for the informal fallacies.
But here’s what we do have:
–A good definition of what an informal fallacy actually is (and there’s one available here at my earlier post);
–a number of argument patterns that are often used in informal fallacies;
–various resemblances among some of the patterns that make it possible to categorize them;
–a few very well-established names for some of the patterns (ad hominem, ad populum, etc.);
–some other names that are somewhat less well-established;
–and a lot of different logic and critical thinking textbooks, each of which has its own particular approach to informal fallacies.
The textbooks vary in these ways:
–they have different lists of the patterns (the longer the list, the more arguments you can apply it to, but the harder it is to remember everything!);
–they have different systems for categorizing the patterns;
–and they do not use exactly the same names for the patterns.
For all things logic, I recommend The Power of Logic by Lehman, Wasserman, and the Howard-Snyders as a good standard logic textbook and also, I deem, better than the other standard ones I’ve worked with (Introduction to Logic by Copi and A Concise Introduction to Logic by Hurley).
But here I am in Hong Kong, my job at HKBU involves teaching a lot of ethics courses, I haven’t taught logic since my last job in Pakistan, and all my logic textbook copies are in a box in a storage unit south of Houston!
And you know what? I don’t even care. And I’ve already told you why I don’t care: We’re not talking about a problem that has an official or perfect solution.
But if you didn’t think my rookie mistake was actually cringey and facepalmy, then I can give you a better solution, and here it is:
There are two different patterns often used in informal fallacies that involve an either-or statement. One is called the “false dilemma” pattern, and the other is (or should be) called the “false dichotomy” pattern.
Let’s look at the patterns, using temporary names that won’t lead us astray.
Fallacies Using the FRODO Pattern
1. You must disapprove of Trump’s behavior, or disapprove of Biden’s behavior. Make up your mind!
2. We must either approve of masks or of chloroquine, and masks are good. So chloroquine can go to heck!
3. We have to drill more, or do more green energy; the time to decide which one is now!
4. We have to cut spending or else grow the economy to fight the national debt. It’s easy to grow the economy, so let’s just ignore the spending.
Fallacies Using the SAM Pattern
1. Your only options are to vote for Hillary or for Trump. Hillary is bad. Therefore, your only option is to vote for Trump.
2. You can be a patsy, or a jerk. It’s wrong to be a jerk. So be a patsy! Or: You can be a patsy, or a jerk. It’s wrong to be a patsy. So be a jerk! (An argument rightly criticized in Henry R’s thread here.)
3. Either you approve of sacrificing the economy to fight coronavirus, or else you are in favor of doing nothing!
4. Are you going to be a Christian, or are you going to be a nihilistic atheist?
You see what’s wrong with the Frodos, don’t you? Those “Why not both?” memes were literally made to respond to arguments like this! (See also Iron Man, below.) All the Frodo arguments are telling us we have to choose between two options when we could well choose both.
Something different is wrong with the Sam arguments. Their fallacy is giving us only two choices when there are other options available. (See Dilbert’s mom, below.)
Those are not the same mistake. The Frodo arguments are asking us to choose between only one of two options when we can actually have both; the Sam arguments are asking us to choose one of two options when we can actually reject both.
(Of course, the same argument can have both mistakes: You must like Star Wars or else Star Trek. Star Trek is great, and therefore you should hate Star Wars!)
So which mistake is used in “false dichotomy” fallacies, and which one is used in “false dilemma” fallacies? Well, the Frodo arguments are improperly separating things that could go together. And the Sam arguments are improperly limiting us to only two choices when other choices are available.
So let’s review the relevant terms:
–a dichotomy is a cutting or a dividing in two (see Dictionary.com here);
–and a dilemma is, traditionally, a set of two options or of two propositions (go to Dictionary.com here and scroll down to the part about “Historical Usage”).
So which arguments improperly cut or divide two options? Those would be the Frodo arguments. So a good name for the Frodo arguments is “false dichotomy fallacies.” And which arguments give us an improper set of two options? Those would be the Sam arguments. So a good name for the Sam arguments is “false dilemma fallacies.”
This is how you’re likely to find the term defined in any logic textbook that uses the term “false dilemma.” “False dilemma” has a pretty well-established meaning, unlike “false dichotomy.”
Unfortunately, the terms are sometimes used synonymously, like here in Wiktionary. This is not universal; for example, at the Dictionary.com definition of “dichotomy,” the third definition emphasizes the use of the term in logic as involving a strict separation, a mutual exclusivity–standard dichotomy stuff, not dilemma stuff.
Using them synonymously abandons the dictionary use of the word “dichotomy.”
Consider the claim You must support a future malaria vaccine, or at least support chloroquine. This sentence is not telling me that I cannot support both. But if you want to call it a fallacy on the grounds that it leaves out mosquito nets, be my guest. That would make it an inappropriate reduction of choices, an improper set of two options–a false dilemma.
But it doesn’t falsely separate the two options it presents. It’s not a chotomy of any kind, and so not a dichotomy. So I ask you, if you want to use “false dichotomy” and “false dilemma” synonymously:
Why would you want to label something an improper separation when it does not improperly separate?
You could just say something like, “Hey, bro, this is a dichotomy, but it should be a trichotomy!” Or you could just use the standard logic textbook term that makes sense etymologically: You can say, “This is a false dilemma fallacy.”
And then you can save the term “false dichotomy fallacy” for arguments that improperly separate two options. That’s the right way to use the word “dichotomy,” and it allows us to use these two fitting names to keep track of the distinction between two different kinds of bad argument.Published in