In this post, we will be discussing a logical fallacy that you either refer to as false dichotomy or black and white fallacy. Therefore, if you don’t refer to it as a false dichotomy, you must refer to it as a black and white fallacy, and vice versa – either those two or nothing else.
It might interest you to know that the content of the paragraph above is logically fallacious. As a matter of fact, it faults on the lines of false dichotomy! Why? It presents two options as the only choices to choose from, and if you are not going for one, then you must be going for the other. But really, other terms could be used to refer to this type of fallacy, including fallacy of false choice, the fallacy of false alternatives, the false binary, bifurcation fallacy, no middle ground fallacy, all-or-nothing fallacy, false dilemma, the either-or fallacy, etc.
A false dichotomy is defined as a logical fallacy that occurs when two outcomes, options, or extremes are presented as the only two choices one can choose from, when in truth, other alternatives could be considered. The fallacy paints the scenario such that if you are not accepting one option, then the other must be accepted.
If it is not A, then it must be B!
It is the sort of fallacy you are likely to come across every day in the media, political campaigns, adverts, and of course, in our interactions with others. In more formal settings such as politics, the false dichotomy fallacy is often intentionally utilized as a tool for propaganda – to box in and sway the opinion of the audience. A dichotomy is created, when indeed, there is no dichotomy – hence, a false dichotomy.
It is a fallacy that we must look out for, especially when cornered in situations requiring us to make a choice. While trying to look out for this sort of fallacy in others, it is also crucial to note that you could easily commit this fallacy as well, even if unknowingly. Hence, pay attention.
Peter: You are either a republican or a democrat. Since you said you are not a republican, then you must be a democrat!
Paul: I am indifferent about all these things, Peter. You should know that.
The example above gives insight into how easy it is for one to commit the fallacy of false dichotomy. You could be Peter, and we could be Peter – anyone could be Peter. You could be the one making that statement without thinking twice about the false limitations it provides. From Peter’s fallacious perspective, there are only two possible outcomes/alternatives and nothing else in-between. However, Paul is taking a neutral position, decimating the dichotomy that Peter had used as a premise to arrive at a conclusion that is apparently wrong.
For the sake of clarity…
You might have noticed that the terms “false dichotomy” and “false dilemma” are often used interchangeably in some texts/publications. Nonetheless, it is important to note that there are slight differences between both and that false dichotomy is sometimes classified as a form of false dilemma. False dichotomy particularly considers two outcomes as the only alternatives. While false dilemma generally considers two unpleasant outcomes as the alternatives, but with one so negatively structured (given the prevailing scenario), an individual could be cunningly coerced into going for the other. The differences are quite negligible, thus the interchangeability. Sometimes, false dilemmas tend to border on moral perceptions. One of the most popular examples of false dilemmas, which is in itself also a false dichotomy, is:-
You are either for us or against us.
Now we know that you are with us, let us take a look at an article covering an infographic, which, while probably intended for good, had combined the fallacies of false dichotomy and false dilemma in one pod.
Article Review: Covid-19 – Should the Government Save Lives or Save Jobs? [Infographic]
The article aimed to address a bugging question that many analysts and debaters were faced with at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The author starts the article by narrating the state of affairs surrounding the pandemic; how various states in the U.S were handling it, the expert opinions being provided, and various countries’ approach towards controlling the spread of the virus. Afterward, it goes into detail to explain the portion of the infographic, which had basically asked people to either save lives or save the economy.
The false dichotomy/dilemma:
“Should governments be saving as many lives as possible while incurring economic damage or focusing on saving jobs instead of taking precautions to keep citizens safe?”
The resultant public response:
“67% of the survey’s 13,200 participants in 11 countries felt the government should save as many lives as possible, even if it means the economy will sustain more damage and recover more slowly. 33% of those polled said it is becoming more important for the government to save jobs and restart the economy than to take every precaution possible to keep people safe from the virus.”
If you limit yourself to the options provided above while answering the question, then one thing would appear to be clear; you either value lives over economy or value economy over lives.
There couldn’t have been a more elaborate example of a false dilemma. The two options are unpleasant, and you have to choose one. More so, it bears hints of the moral probe. Would you want people to keep dying so you could keep your job? Or do you want people to lose their jobs (their means of livelihood) so lives could be saved?
In the same vein, there couldn’t have been a more elaborate example of a false dichotomy. The question poses two outcomes/extremes as the only possible alternatives the respondents could pick from. Meanwhile, other alternatives could have been considered. The respondents might have loved to have the government strike a balance between saving lives and the economy. After all, if we are to be very analytical, saving lives could indirectly translate to saving the economy, just as saving the economy could be influential in saving lives.
Most people would have preferred that both the economy and lives be taken care of without focusing on one over the other. Nor should it be that attending to one extreme means the decline of the other.
The result, as seen from the second excerpt, showed that 67% of the sampled population would prefer the government to focus on saving lives rather than saving the economy, while 33% of the sampled population went for the alternative. Knowing the tendency for humans to be morally obliged, it is easy to understand why the result tilted the way it did. The oversimplified bifurcation of the issues surrounding the generation of the question creates a division, which ought not to be.
To understand the falsehood of this dichotomy better, say, you and your friend were asked this question. Let’s assume you go with the 67% and your friend goes with the 33%. There is a likelihood you could think that your friend doesn’t value lives, and your friend thinks that you are not an analytical thinker. Meanwhile, there is a chance that both of you would have loved to strike a balance between saving lives and saving the economy or explore other options that provide an apparent solution. But well, those options weren’t provided for you.
Fixing the fallacy
There is no problem with the article, really. Though the title rephrased the question in simpler terms, it only aimed to reflect on the infographic discussed. Now, while the sampled population for the infographic was anonymous, the question posed was one that caused a lot of debate at the given time. It polarized ideological positions, when there could have easily been a neutral ground seeking a balance between both extremes. Just as with numerous polls, the fallacy of false dichotomy could have been avoided if a lot more options were provided during the poll. Or, in the very least, an option bearing balance was included.