The false dichotomy of false dichotomies

There is a false dichotomy in believing that all dichotomies are either true or false.

To say “you either win or lose” is a dichotomy. It divides everything into two piles.

To call something a false dichotomy suggests the division is wrong and that there are more than two piles. For example, in most sporting events there is the possibility of a tie, where neither team wins or loses. Nature vs. nurture is another false dichotomy, since they both influence the development of a child.

The trap in calling something a false dichotomy is it suggests there are true dichotomies. But true dichotomies are rare. They mostly occur in mathematics or science where terms are rigorously defined. For example, a true dichotomy exists between even and odd numbers. By the specific definition of these words, it’s impossible for a number to be both odd and even.

But almost nothing we dichotomize is truly divided into two piles. They are merely perceived dichotomies – divisions we project onto the world because of our perceptions and biases. For example, in the U.S. we divide people politically as Liberals and Conservatives, but the terms are so poorly defined it’s easy to find examples of people who have some liberal views and some conservative views.  There are other important alternatives for defining a person’s politics (what do you want to liberate? what do you want to conserve? how do you think it should be done?), but the convenience of the  false dichotomy of liberal vs. conservative hides them from consideration. The convenience of binary logic blinds us from how poor a foundation for thought it can be.

All dichotomies can be sub-divided into smaller groups. This is rarely observed in debate, but if you believe you can divide anything in half, this applies recursively. You can have conservative liberals and liberal conservatives. And conservative liberal conservatives and liberal conservative liberals. If you stop to carefully examine anything polarizing, even when you’re certain you’re on the right side, you’ll discover nuance, contradiction and subtlety that will cause any wise mind to challenge the merits of the initial dichotomy.

Of course creating a dichotomy can serve a purpose. I may divide my list of contacts into two piles, friends and acquaintances, to help me decide who to invite to a party. But all dichotomies are arbitrary. Given a different purpose, I could create a very different way to divide the same list (people who like Duran Duran vs. people who hate Duran Duran). No law says we can only divide by two. Some divisions might have three groups, or five, instead of just two (e.g. people who like / hate / only like one song by Duran Duran). There are an infinite number of ways to divide that list, just as there are an infinite number of ways to divide anything. Depending on the goal, some ways are more useful than others.

In a sense, all perceived dichotomies are false if they are used too strongly. And the danger is when someone presents a perceived dichotomy as a real one, such as “You are either with us, or against us.” I admit there  is power in dividing the world in two, as it forces people to decide and take action, a useful thing for a leader to do. But the presenting of any perceived dichotomy as a real one should cause any wise person to ask:

  • What are other equally reasonable ways to divide this?
  • Is there a third important group being omitted?
  • Why did this person choose to omit them? Ignorance? Manipulation? Self-Interest? Inspiration?
  • Do they acknowledge there are other equally reasonable divisions?

False dichotomies are dangerous. And they are everywhere.

What false dichotomy annoys you the most? Leave a comment.

16 Responses to “The false dichotomy of false dichotomies”

  1. Greg Linster

    When people claim they can either completely control their situation or that they have no control of their situation. I think for most things we have some control, but not total control.

    Reply
    1. Scott Berkun

      Greg: That’s a good one. It’s a self-helpy sentiment, but many psychologists are fond of saying you can’t control everything, but you can learn to influence how you respond to things. If you buy that, even if you are truly in a situation out of your external control, you still can influence your internal response.

      Reply
      1. Greg Linster

        Great point, Scott! I think the key thing to note is that we can *influence* our internal responses, but sometimes, no matter how well prepared or trained we are, our internal responses still get the better of us.

        Reply
  2. Alex

    The political divides around the world (which you touch on) is perhaps my biggest hate and what I think is the most limiting to human progress. But I’ve also got a pet hate for the false dichotomy of human relations trying to suss out our position in it; “you always do X”, “you never do Y”, “it’s always like this”, “why can’t they never …”, “why do we always …”, “Group X always …”, “Group Y never …” “them vs. us”, and so on. Yeah, I realize there’s a strong connection between my two big hates … I just wished that people in general could be more comfortable with issues being complex and *full* of grays rather than the black / white false dichotomy.

    And thanks for bringing it up! I had a huge whinge about this to a friend just yesterday, and it’s good to know you’re listening and providing feedback. :)

    Reply
      1. Alex

        Well, there’s good science on the cognition involved. We’re biological pattern-recognizing machines, looking for patterns even where there is none (we’re in fact extremely good at seeing things that aren’t there), and thinking of our evolved state of overreacting being a successful survival tactic, we take any state and try to paint a black / white color on things, probably in a way to more quickly separate patterns from noise.

        The biggest problem is of course that most people think that they are rational beings when a little bit of self-scrutiny will reveal us for the fuzzy, illogical, scared creatures we are … which is why we don’t, most of the time. The truth is often more scary to us than perceived dangers.

        If we could look through this faulty (by intellectual and modern standards of rigor and rationality) machinery we call the human state knowing its faults, then yes, I’m inclined to call that wisdom. (But don’t get me started on ‘tradition’ and ‘common wisdom’ … :)

        Reply
  3. Daniel

    I guess part of the problem is when media reports on issues in an overly-simplistic and sensationalist manner.

    Examples that reoccur often in the New Zealand media:
    1. Should we change the New Zealand flag (because some confuse it with Australia’s) or not? If so, what should it be changed to?
    2. Should New Zealand become a republic? (If so, what form would the system of Government be in to ensure the necessary checks and balances?)

    The trouble is that in the first case, we have competing motivations and opinions and the media ends up portraying it as a choice between the current flag that soldiers fought in WWI and WWII under, and a black flag with a white fern on it – which seems like more of a sports team supporters’ flag (e.g. the All Blacks rugby team and the Silver Ferns netball team). We have some who simply want the Union Jack to be removed, others who want more consistency with national sports teams, and others who want more Maori cultural references.

    Satisfying as many of these interests as possible means that it’s unlikely that either option is completely suitable. The danger is if one of them is vague, the powers-that-be jump to a more specific conclusion that satisfies very few.

    Apart from that, though, the most annoying dichotomy for me is often portrayed in TV dramas during a ‘domestic’ dispute: The female utters, “It’s either me or X. You choose.” X could be a hobby, event friend or anything else that takes at least part of the male’s attention, but the female makes it a mutually exclusive choice.

    Reply
  4. Boni Faz

    What really bothers me is ist-ism in general, i.e., diving the world into capitalist vs. socialist, economist vs. sociologist and so on. Even worse so, people voluntarily putting themselves into some pot and therefore completely over simplyfying and reducing themselves to the belonging to a group. Pretty much goes into direction of stereotypes, doesn’t it?

    Reply
    1. Scott Berkun

      Yes, it does. Stereotypes are useful in they are often true, but they are rarely the complete truth.

      That’s one theme at the core of all of these comments, and my post. The assumption that any single thought or categorization is truly comprehensive is a great fallacy. There is utility in dividing things into piles, but most of the time that division is used well past the point of utility, and becomes a liability.

      Reply
  5. Sean Crawford

    A sad false dichotomy is teaching children to read by whole word or phonetics. My niece was taught whole word three grades it a row and never learned to read. If only her school had taught both. Then she changed schools to one with phonetics, repeating grade three and became literate at last.

    Reply
  6. Jim Groves

    what’s zero?

    Reply
  7. Cody Frew

    Great post! I was linked to it by way of your latest post on the “No UI” debate…

    I agree with your sentiments 100%. All my adult life, I’ve been fond of taking to general statements like “whenever there are two supposed mutually exclusive sides to any matter, the truth is probably more likely a combination of the two, or it is neither.” I also like to say I am a centrist when it comes to matters like politics, religion, etc…Stuff like that ;)

    Getting past that for a second- what interests me after reading this is: Why do you think there is such a human affinity to these dichotomies? Is it because it simplifies the world conceptually (always power in that I suppose)? Or does it relate to our tribalistic background- where we feed off of improving our condition by attending to our own and casting out those who would otherwise compete for our resources/affection, etc.?

    Just the general concept of rival competition between 2 forces? Not that sports is a mind-blowing source for a metaphor by any means, but I can’t help but think about how this topic relates.

    Reply
  8. dan s

    frequentist/bayesian

    absoluteism is often the problem. x is y is rarely intended as absolute (atomic binary disjunction) but frequently perceived as absolute.

    “Frobmobiles are high quality vehicles”. “Oh yeah? my friend had one and it broke down twice, therefore they are low quality”. All Frobmobiles must be either high or low quality.

    amazing what we can infer from a sample of one.

    Reply
  9. Kirsten

    The one that really annoys me is human sexuality and gender. There are some people who try to split the world into gay and straight, men and woman, when there is so much in between and it really gets on my nerves. And it really bothers me that this kind of dichotomy is what is taught to children.

    Reply

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