Monday, October 27, 2008

False Dichotomy

All logical fallacies irritate me. But one that really gets under my skin is the false dichotomy. This is when someone takes a really complicated issue and narrows it down to just two choices. Sometimes there really is a true dichotomy, (for instance either 2+2=4 or it does not equal 4. all possible answers fit in one of these two groups) but most of the time I've heard people do this there are several other options. Perhaps even a whole spectrum of choices that they are not considering. Here's a quick apolitical example. When you RSVS to a party there is frequently a choice between chicken or fish. At first you may think these are the only options. But I can think of at least two more. Most caterers will make preparations for at least one or two vegetarians in a crowd. You could ask and see if that were possible. You could also just not eat anything. None of the above. My point is that almost always we do have other options besides the two we are given.

Since 9/11 often have we heard the phrase "You're ether with us or you're with the terrorists." Probably one of the worst abuses of the false dichotomy I could think of. Truth is there are several other positions that you could take that don't fall completely in either of these extremes. I could be 100% against the terrorists but disagree with the strategy of opposing them. This is my position. I'm against terrorism but I don't like sacrificing liberties, i.e the Patriot Act, in order to combat them. Or you could be somewhat sympathetic to a group's goals, but 100% against their actions. Pakistan? By turning the issue into a dichotomy many who may have minor strategic differences are unfairly labeled as un-American or as terrorists. Some politicians just find it easier to think in black and white and avoid the more realist, more nuanced nature of reality.

One abuse of this fallacy is the one that comes all too frequently from the pulpit. Either quoting Joseph Smith or any number of the other general authorities who have restated it, "The Book of Mormon is either the greatest book ever published or it is a fraud." As with the political example there are several varying other interpretations and positions. A religious scholar who doesn't have a testimony of the book doesn't necessarily have to think it is a fraud just because he doesn't believe the doctrine. An investigator who is trying to gain a testimony may gain a testimony step by step. There is no quantum leap from thinking it is a fraud to thinking it is doctrine. These things come "line upon line".
Specifically with regards to the Book of Mormon dichotomy, this can be a very disastrous way for someone who is struggling with their testimony to think. If they were to find a story about any number of the missteps of our early church leaders they may be tempted to "throw the baby out with the bathwater". The truth is much more nuanced. It is not an all or nothing proposition. I find it ironic that most LDS members can accept these same nuances and gradations of truth in the Bible, but would consider it heresy to apply these same rules to the Book of Mormon.

No matter what the subject. I find that only very rarely can my choices really be narrowed down to only two.


  1. Imagine showers with only 2 choices.... 2 knobs can only turn one... you pick...

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