What is a false dichotomy, and why is it dangerous?

A false dichotomy is a logical fallacy that incorrectly presents two seemingly mutually exclusive options, which in fact are not mutually exclusive.  Some people use the term “false dilemma” to describe the same thing.  To illustrate, here are a few examples. 

  1. You’re either a coffee-drinker or a tea-drinker. 
  2. Pineapple on pizza is either delicious or disgusting.
  3. You’re either for us or against us. 
  4. You’re either a Conservative or a Liberal.

To be mutually exclusive means that there is no grey area.  You must choose between two options.  I call foul!  

The danger of a false dichotomy is that it’s an oversimplification and/or overgeneralization of the facts and evidence.  If you follow me on Insta, you’ve probably seen my post about this and how it’s dangerous.  This is why false dilemmas, oversimplifications, etc. are called logical fallacies… they are errors in reasoning.  This is extremely bothersome!

To use a logical fallacy is a failure to think critically.  I’ll be the first to admit that I am guilty!  I overgeneralize, I oversimplify, and yes, I use false dichotomies from time to time.  I get so frustrated with myself, but I back-track and figure out where I went wrong.  I must reconsider ALL of the available evidence.  This takes mental effort and sometimes, it strains me emotionally.  In the end, I am glad that I took the time and effort to reconsider.  

Let’s take a non-controversial example and break it down:  You’re either a coffee-drinker or tea-drinker.  

Where are my coffee fiends at?  As a researcher in the science community, that’s definitely me!  But, I also like tea.  When I drink tea, I get called names like “traitor,” “weak,” and sometimes profanities.  Why are people so butthurt over the fact that I chose to drink tea instead of coffee?  They both contain caffeine, and I like both.  

The problem lies in how the situation is interpreted by the name caller.  The name caller in this case is not considering the evidence here.  Tea is seen as a weak choice simply because it is not coffee.  However, the name caller failed to consider that tea has caffeine too, just in a smaller amount.  They also failed to consider that too much caffeine upsets my GI tract if I have too much.  In a way, they are pressuring me to accept that coffee is the superior beverage and downplaying my strength because I drank tea once!  This is totally ridiculous, right?

It’s the same thing with pineapple on pizza.  Stop shaming people when they have their pizza one way or the other!  Yes, there are people who either like it both ways, or just genuinely don’t care.  The things people choose to get emotional over…  Now, put a false dichotomy into the context of politics, science, or religion… outcomes that now have much greater effects on people’s way of living.  Social media, mainstream media, and your friends and family may use this logical fallacy to get you to “side” with them on polarized issues.  The continuous use of false dichotomies surrounding an issue is one of the reasons why polarization surrounding said issue becomes prevalent. As I’m sure you’ve gleaned by now, a false dichotomy is presented by someone who doesn’t have all of the facts. The bottom line is that when two options are incorrectly presented, a major failure to consider all of the available evidence has occurred.  

I can’t say for certain why the media presents false dichotomies, but I can say with a decent level of certainty that members of the general public assume false dichotomies because they are not exerting mental effort.  It is so easy to get sucked in to dramatic, polarizing issues that are fed to you daily through your screen, but it is much more difficult and mentally taxing to do research of your own (and I’m not talking about YouTube documentaries here).  

I’m talking about seeking knowledge rooted in evidence (AKA data that leads to proof) on a topic that you aren’t so knowledgeable about.  This includes reading articles from experts and reputable organizations and considering opinions that might challenge yours.  I wrote a blog a few months back about how we are all biased, even the best of the best.  It encourages you to consider where your personal shortcomings are and how to address them.   

We don’t want mental laziness.  I think that failing to exert mental effort or any effort at all, really, is why we have been dumbfounded when it comes to many important issues lately.  We can’t solve all of our problems with philosophy and critical thinking.  Change takes action, of course, but I believe that considering all of the available evidence rather than pointing to two false choices, is a good start.   

References and Further Reading

Tomić, T. False Dilemma: A Systematic Exposition. Argumentation 27, 347–368 (2013). doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10503-013-9292-0

Lewiński, M. Argumentative Polylogues: Beyond Dialectical Understanding of Fallacies, Studies in Logic, Grammar and Rhetoric 36, 193-218. (2014). doi: https://doi.org/10.2478/slgr-2014-0010

Photo by Elena Mozhvilo on Unsplash

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