The False Dichotomy Fallacy: Not the Same Thing as the False Dilemma Fallacy

 

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 hominemad 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.

undefinedFor 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.

The Lord Of The Rings: 10 Hidden Details About Frodo's Costume You Never NoticedFallacies 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.

Sam Gamgee Quotes. QuotesGramFallacies 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!)

Why Not Both GIFs | TenorSo 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.

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  1. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    An impressive, friendly, and easy to engage post on definitional hard points! Thanks, St. A. 

    • #1
  2. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Saint Augustine:

    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,” which is also how you’re sure to find the term defined in any logic textbook that uses the term “false dilemma.”

    Let’s call this an appendix:

    Just to clarify how the two argument patterns can diverge:

    1. It’s possible to have an argument that does improperly leave us with two choices, but does not improperly divide the two.  Dilbert’s mom’s situation and the second Sam argument(s) are great examples: The two are divided, but properly so: You really should not do both of those things!

    Similarly, the remark about malaria does not even divide at all.

    In other words, it’s possible for an argument to fit this definition of a dilemma but not this definition of a dichotomy–a false dilemma, but not a false dichotomy.

    2. And it’s possible to have an argument that does improperly divide two choices but which is not improper in giving us those two choices.  The first and fourth Frodo arguments are good examples: Nothing wrong with giving us those two options!

    In other words, it’s possible for an argument to fit this definition of a dichotomy but not be an improper dilemma by this definition of a dilemma–a false dichotomy, but not a false dilemma.

    • #2
  3. Henry Racette Contributor
    Henry Racette
    @HenryRacette

    Hey SA,

    Thanks for taking the time to write this. I love words and like to use them correctly.

    You recommend a couple of reference books on the topic of logic. I have neither of those books, and wondered if you could concisely quote each book’s definition of “false dichotomy” for us, so that I could see an actual textbook definition of the term.

    I ask only because the only definition of the actual term “false dichotomy” that I’ve encountered is this one, from Critical Thinking: A Concise Guide, by Tracy Bowell and Gary Kemp (emphasis mine):

    false dichotomy:

    The false dichotomy is a logical fallacy in which only a limited number of options are considered in a situation when, in fact, there may very well be more options left unconsidered. Frequently, the person making the argument might express an assumption that there are only two options to choose from. This fallacy is often present in making false assumptions that if a person does not agree with X, they must necessarily be anti-X, when in reality they may hold some intermediate position or be undecided.

    Since this is pretty much in keeping with my apparently erroneous understanding of the term based on my own encounters with it, it would be great to see the phrase defined, clearly and briefly, by at least one other textbook.

    Thanks! I appreciate the time you’ve put into this.

    Oh, and I do appreciate the logic of trying to determine the meaning of the phrase by looking at the definitions of the words from which it’s made, but it seems to me that a definition of the phrase itself would take priority over such a reconstructed meaning. Phrases can have accepted idiomatic meanings that don’t precisely match what one might believe based on the individual words, after all.

    Thanks again,

    Hank

    • #3
  4. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    You recommend a couple of reference books on the topic of logic. I have neither of those books, and wondered if you could concisely quote each book’s definition of “false dichotomy” for us, so that I could see an actual textbook definition of the term.

    As I said, they’re in Texas, and the different textbooks do not even give the same lists of fallacies.

    Based on my old lesson plans, Intro to Logic (last taught in Lahore, 2017) doesn’t mention either fallacy, and The Power of Logic (last taught in Rome, GA, 2012) only covers the false dilemma fallacy, giving a standard definition. (My lesson plans: “Making an UNWARRANTED ASSUMPTION about the number of alternatives.”)

    I ask only because the only definition of the actual term “false dichotomy” that I’ve encountered is this one, from Critical Thinking: A Concise Guide, by Tracy Bowell and Gary Kemp (emphasis mine):

    false dichotomy:

    The false dichotomy is a logical fallacy in which only a limited number of options are considered in a situation when, in fact, there may very well be more options left unconsidered.

    Frequently, the person making the argument might express an assumption that there are only two options to choose from. This fallacy is often present in making false assumptions that if a person does not agree with X, they must necessarily be anti-X, when in reality they may hold some intermediate position or be undecided.

    Since this is pretty much in keeping with my apparently erroneous understanding of the term based on my own encounters with it, it would be great to see the phrase defined, clearly and briefly, by at least one other textbook.

    Thanks! I appreciate the time you’ve put into this.

    Oh, and I do appreciate the logic of trying to determine the meaning of the phrase by looking at the definitions of the words from which it’s made, but it seems to me that a definition of the phrase itself would take priority over such a reconstructed meaning. Phrases can have accepted idiomatic meanings that don’t precisely match what one might believe based on the individual words, after all.

    I think I’ve already given all the information I have about this.

    But look at it this way: Logic teachers and textbooks always depart from contemporary idioms.  Probably about a fifth of a logic textbook is nothing but stipulating technical definitions for the characteristics and patterns of arguments.

    The goal is to use succinct names that describe the characteristics and patterns as clearly as possible, occasionally sacrificing linguistic clarity for logic-teaching convention.

    If Bowell and Kemp are not already doing that, well–I think we should do that. If they are doing it, I’ve given my reasons for a better way of doing it.  (In other words, there is no official or perfect way, and I’ve given my reasons for a better way.)

    • #4
  5. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    I ask only because the only definition of the actual term “false dichotomy” that I’ve encountered . . .

    Until now.

    You're Welcome (GIF) - GIF on Imgur

    . . . is this one, from Critical Thinking: A Concise Guide, by Tracy Bowell and Gary Kemp (emphasis mine):

    More important than the names is keeping track of the things the names name–in this case, the argument patterns.

    So let’s keep track.

    false dichotomy:

    The false dichotomy is a logical fallacy in which only a limited number of options are considered in a situation when, in fact, there may very well be more options left unconsidered. Frequently, the person making the argument might express an assumption that there are only two options to choose from.

    That’s one fallacy–improperly reducing the number of alternatives.  That’s SAM stuff.

    This fallacy is often present in making false assumptions that if a person does not agree with X, they must necessarily be anti-X, when in reality they may hold some intermediate position . . .

    And that’s another fallacy.  That’s FRODO stuff. That’s improperly dichotomizing two alternatives.

    . . . or be undecided.

    And that’s merging FRODO and SAM fallacies.

    Not that it’s necessarily bad to give one generic name to a group of fallacies. (Textbooks do it all the time–ad hominem fallacy is often given as a type of fallacy with two or three subtypes.)  But in this case we have a name that has a well-established etymological sense that perfectly fits SAM fallacies.  And then we have a name conflated with it that happens perfectly to describe FRODO fallacies perfectly.

    For the low cost of departing from one textbook (that you and I know of), we can stick with the dictionary definition of “dichotomy” and be more clear about what fallacies we’re talking about.

    But hey–we could just stick with “Frodo fallacy” and “Sam fallacy” and still be just as clear. I’m–quite seriously–pretty happy with that.

    • #5
  6. JoelB Member
    JoelB
    @JoelB

    I don’t think I am going to use either of those words around here anymore.

    • #6
  7. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    JoelB (View Comment):

    I don’t think I am going to use either of those words around here anymore.

    Maybe these are good alternative names. Look at Frodo and Sam with their sad faces; they deserve it; fallacies should feel sad.

    The Lord Of The Rings: 10 Hidden Details About Frodo's Costume You Never Noticed Sam Gamgee Quotes. QuotesGram

    • #7
  8. Franco Member
    Franco
    @Franco

    Now I’m counting your ‘likes’ in my comments as worth 5 likes – at least!

    • #8
  9. Henry Racette Contributor
    Henry Racette
    @HenryRacette

    I remember once reading some old anecdote, almost certainly apocryphal, about the Greeks and their obsession with theory and unfamiliarity with experimentation. The story went that the Greeks theorized that chicken must have teeth, but never looked in a chicken’s mouth to find out if that were true.

    In my lifetime of using and misusing language – and I’ll admit that I’ve done some of each — the phrase “false dichotomy” has always meant to me the same thing as I defined in the comment above, when I quoted a text on the topic.

    I’ve asked you a few times if you could provide me a textbook definition, and you’ve always declined. Instead, you’ve offered your theory, and that’s what I’m going to call it, about what the term must mean based on the definition of a word.

    So I’m left in a bit of a bind. I can go out and attempt to find more evidence to support my case, but if one to nothing right now doesn’t carry any weight, I don’t know that three to nothin, say, will carry any more. So I think I’m going to continue using it the way I always have until something more definitive is presented.

    If this be error and upon me proved… well, I never writ that I was a philosophy professor.

    • #9
  10. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    . . .

    . . . the phrase “false dichotomy” has always meant to me the same thing as I defined in the comment above, when I quoted a text on the topic.

    I’ve asked you a few times if you could provide me a textbook definition, and you’ve always declined. . . .

    Once again, the textbooks do not all use the same names or even list the same fallacies.  And my textbooks are in a box in Texas.

    Instead, you’ve offered your theory, and that’s what I’m going to call it, about what the term must mean based on the definition of a word.

    So I’m left in a bit of a bind. I can go out and attempt to find more evidence to support my case, but if one to nothing right now doesn’t carry any weight, I don’t know that three to nothin, say, will carry any more. So I think I’m going to continue using it the way I always have until something more definitive is presented.

    There’s no must here.  This is just a better definition to go with the term.

    Why not start with this? Just recognize that there are different fallacies here, and know that some weirdo on the internet recommends using different names for them.

    • #10
  11. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    So I’m left in a bit of a bind. I can go out and attempt to find more evidence to support my case, but if one to nothing right now doesn’t carry any weight, I don’t know that three to nothin, say, will carry any more. So I think I’m going to continue using it the way I always have until something more definitive is presented.

    Please keep in mind that Dictionary.com (see the opening post) points towards keeping the dictionary sense when using the term for logic purposes.

    And here and here are sources that both apparently define the term so as only to apply when both fallacies are present–inconsistent with my usage and with Bowell/Kemp.  Wikipedia mentions that “Sometimes a distinction is made” between false dichotomy and false dilemma, pointing to a completely different distinction which is not consistent with standard logic textbook use of “false dilemma.”

    The long and short of it is: It appears that “false dichotomy” is just not a term with a well-established meaning; like I said, that happens with informal fallacies.

    “False dilemma” and “dichotomy,” however, both have well-established meanings. Is there any reason not to stick with established meanings and clarity?

    • #11
  12. Henry Racette Contributor
    Henry Racette
    @HenryRacette

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    So I’m left in a bit of a bind. I can go out and attempt to find more evidence to support my case, but if one to nothing right now doesn’t carry any weight, I don’t know that three to nothin, say, will carry any more. So I think I’m going to continue using it the way I always have until something more definitive is presented.

    Please keep in mind that Dictionary.com (see the opening post) points towards keeping the dictionary sense when using the term for logic purposes.

    And here and here are sources that both apparently define the term so as only to apply when both fallacies are present–inconsistent with my usage and with Bowell/Kemp. Wikipedia mentions that “Sometimes a distinction is made” between false dichotomy and false dilemma, pointing to a completely different distinction which is not consistent with standard logic textbook use of “false dilemma.”

    The long and short of it is: It appears that “false dichotomy” is just not a term with a well-established meaning; like I said, that happens with informal fallacies.

    “False dilemma” and “dichotomy,” however, both have well-established meanings. Is there any reason not to stick with established meanings and clarity?

    Laughing.

    See my previous comment you wacky philosophy professor.

    • #12
  13. No Caesar Thatcher
    No Caesar
    @NoCaesar

    Interesting.  But Sam  #1 is not a false choice in the United States political system, where two parties have overwhelming voter share.  If you do not vote for one party, you have effectively voted for the other.  Unless you are completely indifferent to the election outcome you must always, at a minimum, vote for the lesser of two evils.  

    • #13
  14. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Is this a dichotomy of dilemmas or a dilemma of dichotomies?

    • #14
  15. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    So I’m left in a bit of a bind. I can go out and attempt to find more evidence to support my case, but if one to nothing right now doesn’t carry any weight, I don’t know that three to nothin, say, will carry any more. So I think I’m going to continue using it the way I always have until something more definitive is presented.

    Please keep in mind that Dictionary.com (see the opening post) points towards keeping the dictionary sense when using the term for logic purposes.

    And here and here are sources that both apparently define the term so as only to apply when both fallacies are present–inconsistent with my usage and with Bowell/Kemp. Wikipedia mentions that “Sometimes a distinction is made” between false dichotomy and false dilemma, pointing to a completely different distinction which is not consistent with standard logic textbook use of “false dilemma.”

    The long and short of it is: It appears that “false dichotomy” is just not a term with a well-established meaning; like I said, that happens with informal fallacies.

    “False dilemma” and “dichotomy,” however, both have well-established meanings. Is there any reason not to stick with established meanings and clarity?

    Laughing.

    See my previous comment you wacky philosophy professor.

    Meaning that you will happily sacrifice clarity and established meanings because you can cite one textbook that did so first?

    And this in a field where no two textbooks use all the same definitions? Where the goal is to use succinct names that describe the relevant aspects of arguments as clearly as possible, only occasionally sacrificing linguistic clarity for logic-teaching convention?  And you’ll take your one textbook’s sacrifice of clarity in defining a term when there’s not even a convention for that term?

    • #15
  16. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    No Caesar (View Comment):

    Interesting. But Sam #1 is not a false choice in the United States political system, where two parties have overwhelming voter share. If you do not vote for one party, you have effectively voted for the other. Unless you are completely indifferent to the election outcome you must always, at a minimum, vote for the lesser of two evils.

    That’s the difference between premise and conclusion.

    The dilemma in Sam # 1 makes a fallacious premise.

    It can make a fine conclusion to a decent argument like yours.

    • #16
  17. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Is this a dichotomy of dilemmas or a dilemma of dichotomies?

    A false dichotomy is not the same as a false dilemma–see comment # 2.

    But technically a dichotomy is a dilemma.

    But the same argument can be both.

    So I think we have a dilemma of dilemmas.

    A false dilemma of fallacious dilemmas–because we can avoid both.

    • #17
  18. Mark Camp Member
    Mark Camp
    @MarkCamp

    Henry Racette (View Comment):
    Oh, and I do appreciate the logic of trying to determine the meaning of the phrase by looking at the definitions of the words from which it’s made

    Hank,

    No, there is no logic to trying to determine the meaning of a term, whether by that means or any other. One can determine if a fact is correct, but not if a definition is correct. St. A has consistently avoided making this error throughout this discussion.

    Read very carefully his objection to the definition you quote.  You will see that he doesn’t ever say that that definition is wrong.  He only asks in effect, with the words in italics added by me for emphasis, “Given that we are free to choose any two terms to refer to these two definite ideas that we please, why would we choose one that is etymologically unnatural when we have already an equally or better accepted convention that is etymologically natural?

    Sure, we can vote for etymologically unnatural definitions, any time we please.  We could call false division of choices gzorn fallacies and reject both false dilemma and false dichotomy,  and no one could “determine the meaning” to be something other than what we chose.  There is no “the meaning”, in the sense that there is a “the density of gold”.

    • #18
  19. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    Henry Racette (View Comment):
    Oh, and I do appreciate the logic of trying to determine the meaning of the phrase by looking at the definitions of the words from which it’s made

    Hank,

    No, there is no logic to trying to determine the meaning of a term, whether by that means or any other. One can determine if a fact is correct, but not if a definition is correct. St. A has consistently avoided making this error throughout this discussion.

    Read very carefully his objection to the definition you quote. You will see that he doesn’t ever say that that definition is wrong. He only asks in effect, with the words in italics added by me for emphasis, “Given that we are free to choose any two terms to refer to these two definite ideas that we please, why would we choose one that is etymologically unnatural when we have already an equally or better accepted convention that is etymologically natural?

    Sure, we can vote for etymologically unnatural definitions, any time we please. We could call false division of choices gzorn fallacies and reject both false dilemma and false dichotomy, and no one could “determine the meaning” to be something other than what we chose. There is no “the meaning”, in the sense that there is a “the density of gold”.

    Good comment; thanks.

    I’m good with “gzorn fallacies,” or “Frodo fallacies.”

    Now I think Hank’s point was that “false dichotomy” as a name for Sam fallacies is, as far as he knows, conventional in ordinary speech and better established in logic textbook terms.

    Is it conventional in ordinary speech?  Maybe.  I could argue that ordinary speech should be adjusted when it’s terribly unclear.

    More importantly (see comment # 4), I don’t much care about ordinary speech at this point; we’re talking about technical terms for informal fallacies, and the textbooks always depart from ordinary speech for the sake of greater clarity, logic-teacher convention, or both.

    And is there a logic-teacher convention for using “false dichotomy” as a name for Sam fallacies?  It looks like there is not–see comment # 11.

    But if there were?  Well, that’s a convention that can change; every textbook makes its own decisions about how to name some of these patterns. Here’s a better decision about how to name Frodo patterns.

    • #19
  20. Henry Racette Contributor
    Henry Racette
    @HenryRacette

    “I tried to get out, but they pulled me back in.”

    SA,  you are like some kind of lexicographical T-1000, relentless, inexhaustible, over-caffeinated.

    Let’s start with what I was trying to convey. I was trying to suggest that it was a mistake to think there were only two ways of being, either a patsy or like our opponents. That was the idea I was trying to convey with “false dichotomy.”

    I think the term is in common use, and I think it’s commonly understood to mean what I intended it to mean. That is certainly the definition that appears most frequently when you go searching for it, and it is also the only one that I have found in a textbook. It is exactly consistent with the meaning of the word dichotomy, which is a division into precisely two things. I was suggesting that that division into precisely two things is false. There are more than two things.

    The phrase false dilemma is much less common. I suspect it is not well understood. Go to Google and look for it, and you’ll find more than one million hits for false dichotomy, and about a quarter as many for false dilemma. I would be very surprised if many readers understood the nuanced difference on which you are focusing.  I’m also skeptical that that difference is actually relevant in this case.

    What the word dilemma does is introduced the idea of unpleasant choices. That wasn’t relevant to my title, and not something to which I wanted to draw attention. I was interested in the quality of two-ness, not the quality of unpleasantness. You’ve suggested that you don’t associate dilemma with unpleasant choices, but I think virtually everyone does, and that that’s the commonly understood implication of the term. Therefore it seems less suitable to me than a common phrase that is understood to mean a false partitioning into two choices.

    Part of writing with clarity is using words in ways that they are actually understood by people. Pointing out that the definitions and the textbooks are vague for these terms doesn’t help me: very few readers are going to consult philosophical texts and etymologies. Better to use the phrase that is in common use and that will, when searched for by those who need a definition, be revealed to mean what I intended to mean.

    I don’t know what time it is in Hong Kong, but I am three hours from home, returning with my daughter whom I picked up from college. Have a wonderful night and/or day. You nut.

     

    • #20
  21. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    You know, this could be a terrific objection to my position on the names:

    The word “dilemma” has lost its etymological meaning, so we should use a name for Sam fallacies that confuses people less.

    I’m not in favor of that like I’m not in favor of drinking coffee–I don’t agree with the decision, but it’s hard to care much.

    A new name for Sam fallacies that sticks with contemporary English dictionary words would be a big departure from the conventions in the logic textbooks.  But that’s ok.

    My only real concern is that I have no idea what name would be succinct enough to be useful.  Best I can come up with is “false reduction of choices.”  Four words is a bit too long, I think.

    • #21
  22. Mark Camp Member
    Mark Camp
    @MarkCamp

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):
    Now I think Hank’s point was that “false dichotomy” as a name for Sam fallacies is, as far as he knows, conventional in ordinary speech and better established in logic textbook terms.

    St. Augustine,

    I agree with Hank that that fact would militate for accepting that definition.

    But I was referring to Hank’s assertion, in the text I quoted, that we can determine the meaning of a word.  In truth, given a particular idea to which a community of

    • philosophers, or
    • technologists, or
    • the general public

    wish to assign a conventional pointer for convenience of discussion, we can assign any string of phonemes or characters we wish, and not be wrong (or right).

    Your point was very clear, I thought: though there are no correct semantics, there are more, and less, pragmatical choices. Given a choice of two logically arbitrary proposed tokens for, say,  the idea of false division of choices, all else equal it’s prudent to choose the more natural: false dichotomy.  If future generations can, merely by learning their Greek and Latin roots, figure out immediately what  thousands of unfamiliar terms probably mean, it is better than having them lug around a dictionary for every discipline.

    I don’t mean to suggest that natural etymology is the only attribute by which we should evaluate, compare, and subjectively choose our new or updated or deleted semantics.  All else equal, the better choice is the term that

    • is easier to pronounce
    • generates less ambiguity
      • better not to adopt the word “make” for a new philosophical or technological or social idea, but rather pick some token that doesn’t already have 472 definitions in the OED.
    • is more beautiful
    • is already in common use
    • generates fewer double entendres
    • Etc. etc., etc.
    • #22
  23. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    SA, you are like some kind of lexicographical T-1000, relentless, inexhaustible, over-caffeinated.

    I’ve only had one cup today so far!

    . . . I was trying to suggest that it was a mistake to think there were only two ways of being, either a patsy or like our opponents. That was the idea I was trying to convey with “false dichotomy.”

    Indeed. Your logic was great!

    I think the term is in common use, and I think it’s commonly understood to mean what I intended it to mean.

    Perhaps.

    That is certainly the definition that appears most frequently when you go searching for it, and it is also the only one that I have found in a textbook.

    I don’t find any kind of clarity like that when I Google it. (And all my textbooks are still in Texas, and apparently two standard textbooks don’t define the term at all.)

    It is exactly consistent with the meaning of the word dichotomy, which is a division into precisely two things. I was suggesting that that division into precisely two things is false. There are more than two things.

    You are precisely incorrect.  It’s not a dichotomy if it’s not a chotomy.  Your usage would have us labeling things as dichotomies when they don’t even divide/cut/separate.

    The phrase false dilemma is much less common. I suspect it is not well understood. Go to Google and look for it, and you’ll find more than one million hits for false dichotomy, and about a quarter as many for false dilemma.

    Again, precisely incorrect.  I find 43.4 million results on Google for “false dilemma,” and 13.6 results for “false dichotomy.”  When I Google “false dichotomy meaning,” the results suggest (as in the Wikipedia article on false dilemma) that the term “false dichotomy” usually just piggybacks on “false dilemma,” with no added clarity and with some confusion (as noted in comment # 11).

    And, once again, “false dilemma” is the one that is consistently defined in the textbooks–to refer to Sam fallacies.  (And the ordinary uses are all piggybacking on the logic textbook uses anyway.)

    I would be very surprised if many readers understood the nuanced difference on which you are focusing. I’m also skeptical that that difference is actually relevant in this case.

    It’s as relevant as speech and logic that are just a bit more clear.

    What the word dilemma does is introduced the idea of unpleasant choices.

    Now that‘s an objection! See comment # 21 for my response.

    I don’t know what time it is in Hong Kong, but I am three hours from home, returning with my daughter whom I picked up from college. Have a wonderful night and/or day. You nut.

    It’s morning in Hong Kong, and I’m off to get my second Pfizer vaccine in a bit!

    Good morning from Hong Kong!  (I am indeed a nut.)

    • #23
  24. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):
    Now I think Hank’s point was that “false dichotomy” as a name for Sam fallacies is, as far as he knows, conventional in ordinary speech and better established in logic textbook terms.

    St. Augustine,

    . . .

    I dig.

    • #24
  25. Mark Camp Member
    Mark Camp
    @MarkCamp

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):
    Now I think Hank’s point was that “false dichotomy” as a name for Sam fallacies is, as far as he knows, conventional in ordinary speech and better established in logic textbook terms.

    St. Augustine,

    . . .

    I dig.

    Great.

    And nice original use of ellipsis.  Economical, yet perfectly clear.  I’ve often wondered how best to respond to a comment in its entirety, under the functional limitations of Ricochet, a platform that does not natively support ANY kind of reply to ANYTHING, especially this, the simplest kind of response.

    Now I know.

    • #25
  26. Mark Camp Member
    Mark Camp
    @MarkCamp

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Is it conventional in ordinary speech?  Maybe.  I could argue that ordinary speech should be adjusted when it’s terribly unclear.

    More importantly (see comment # 4), I don’t much care about ordinary speech at this point; we’re talking about technical terms for informal fallacies, and the textbooks always depart from ordinary speech for the sake of greater clarity, logic-teacher convention, or both.

     

    Agree completely.

    • #26
  27. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):
    It’s morning in Hong Kong, and I’m off to get my second Pfizer vaccine in a bit!

    • #27
  28. Henry Racette Contributor
    Henry Racette
    @HenryRacette

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    Henry Racette (View Comment):
    Oh, and I do appreciate the logic of trying to determine the meaning of the phrase by looking at the definitions of the words from which it’s made

    Hank,

    No, there is no logic to trying to determine the meaning of a term, whether by that means or any other. One can determine if a fact is correct, but not if a definition is correct. St. A has consistently avoided making this error throughout this discussion.

    Mark, you quoted the portion of my sentence before the “but.” The rest of the sentence went on to say that a recognized meaning for a phrase as a whole should take priority over a hypothesized meaning based on a reconstruction of the words within the phrase. In fact, I do appreciate someone trying to tease out a meaning by examining the roots; if there’s no other means available for determining meaning, that seems a logical way to try to get a sense of it. But, again, if there’s a common meaning for the phrase already, run with that, and Bob’s your uncle.

    • #28
  29. Henry Racette Contributor
    Henry Racette
    @HenryRacette

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    The phrase false dilemma is much less common. I suspect it is not well understood. Go to Google and look for it, and you’ll find more than one million hits for false dichotomy, and about a quarter as many for false dilemma.

    Again, precisely incorrect.  I find 43.4 million results on Google for “false dilemma,” and 13.6 results for “false dichotomy.”

    Professor, I think you omitted the quotation marks around “false dichotomy” and “false dilemma.” The word dichotomy is far less commonly used than the word “dilemma,” and if you simply search Google for the terms false dichotomy and false dilemma without quotation marks, you’ll get lots and lots of hits on sites that mention both “false” and “dilemma.”

    I just searched Google for the quoted terms, with results:

    “false dichotomy”:  1,650,000

    “false dilemma”:  288,000

    On the other hand, if you search for the word “dilemma” all by itself, you get 114 million hits, versus about 18 million for “dichotomy.”

    Why is “dilemma” used so much? Because it has a well understood connotation of being faced with difficult and unpleasant choices. Why is “false dichotomy” used so much more often than “false dilemma?” Because it’s a commonly recognized expression that most people take to mean:

    “A false dichotomy or false dilemma occurs when an argument presents two options and ignores, either purposefully or out of ignorance, other alternatives.” — philosophy-index.com

    “A false dichotomy note — also known as either/or reasoning, the black/white fallacy, false dilemma, false choice or binary thinking — is when just two options are presented for something when there are actually (many) others.” — tvtropes.org (emphasis in original)

    “A false dilemma (also known as a false dichotomy) is a logical fallacy which involves presenting two opposing views, options or outcomes in such a way that they seem to be the only possibilities: that is, if one is true, the other must be false, or, more typically, if you do not accept one then the other must be accepted.” — rationalwiki.org

    Dichotomy is frequently found in the company of the word false; a false dichotomy is a kind of fallacy in which one is given only two choices when in fact other options are available.” — merriam-webster.com

    The site logicallyfallacious.com includes this interesting comment:

    Staying true to the definitions, the false dilemma is different from the false dichotomy in that a dilemma implies two equally unattractive options whereas a dichotomy generally comprises two opposites. This is a fine point, however, and is generally ignored in common usage.

    The distinction I was interested in in my original title was between two extremes: essentially, passivity vs violence, surrender vs becoming the villain. And, again, “false dichotomy” better captures that meaning.

    And I hope it isn’t necessary to point out, but I will anyway: the fact that many definitions equate “false dichotomy” and “false dilemma” does nothing to alter the reality that “false dichotomy” is the far more used, and almost certainly far more recognized, formulation, and that “dilemma” is freighted with the unwanted and distracting connotation of unpleasantness.

    Hence my choice, and why I believe it was the more clear one.

    • #29
  30. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    Henry Racette (View Comment):
    Oh, and I do appreciate the logic of trying to determine the meaning of the phrase by looking at the definitions of the words from which it’s made

    Hank,

    No, there is no logic to trying to determine the meaning of a term, whether by that means or any other. One can determine if a fact is correct, but not if a definition is correct. St. A has consistently avoided making this error throughout this discussion.

    Mark, you quoted the portion of my sentence before the “but.” The rest of the sentence went on to say that a recognized meaning for a phrase as a whole should take priority over a hypothesized meaning based on a reconstruction of the words within the phrase. In fact, I do appreciate someone trying to tease out a meaning by examining the roots; if there’s no other means available for determining meaning, that seems a logical way to try to get a sense of it. But, again, if there’s a common meaning for the phrase already, run with that, and Bob’s your uncle.

    Sounds good to me!

    In this case, however (and to stick only to more important points), I’m not much interested in popular definitions. I support the logic textbooks’ goal of using (sometimes just by stipulating) succinct names that describe the characteristics and patterns as clearly as possible, occasionally sacrificing linguistic clarity for logic-teaching convention.

    That, and the fact that the popular names of fallacies are 100% derived from the teaching of logic anyway.

    • #30