Duplicity and distraction – false dichotomy
|If it’s presented as a case of black and white, it’s more likely to be red – a red flag.
How to recognise this tactic
In this tactic, people assert that there are only two possible (and usually opposite) positions to choose from, when in fact there are more. They try to argue that if one position is shown to be false, then the other must be correct.
When people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.
Isaac Asimov, Russian – American biochemist and author, 1989
Why do people use this tactic?
People use this tactic when their position has very little supporting evidence. To distract from this, they propose an ‘opposite’ position, find faults in that, and then claim that their position, by default, must be correct. It’s similar to the “distract and misdirect” techniques used by stage magicians in their sleight-of-hand tricks.
What’s wrong with this tactic
At best, the perpetrators of this tactic are ignorant and unaware of the full range of models and evidence in the field. At worst, they are deliberately misrepresenting the situation in order to distract and mislead their audience into accepting their own position.
What to do when confronted by this tactic
The alarm bells should ring when you are told there are only two possible arguments, or that it’s a case of black or white. While this can sometimes logically be the case, usually it’s a red flag. As soon as you detect it, think about the possibilities of other positions and ask the perpetrator about them.
Variations and related tactics
This tactic is also known as the fallacy of the excluded middle, the either-or fallacy, or the black and white fallacy. Often, the ‘position shown to be false’ is a straw man – that’s a position the perpetrators claim is held by their opponents, but in fact is a faulty one they themselves have manufactured.
- Climate deniers frequently set up this false dichotomy: CO2 is good/CO2 is bad. They point out that CO2 is not poisonous, it’s ‘plant food’, it’s in beer and soft-drinks. All of these things, they argue, are good, so the claims that CO2 is harmful must be wrong. Here’s the tactic being used by Christopher Monckton:
And here by Alan Jones, Ian Plimer, and a whole host of the usual suspects.
In fact, these properties of CO2 are completely disconnected from its role as a greenhouse gas which contributes to climate change.
- Here’s an article from Shaping Tomorrow’s World describing how false dichotomies (nature versus human, environmentalist versus corporation, organic versus modern agriculture) have been used in debates over GM foods.