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False Dichotomy

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False Dichotomy

You have two choices. Either you eat an apple every day, or you get sick and need to see the doctor. Of course, this isn’t actually true. These are not the only two options you have, but such is the fallacy of the false dichotomy. When writing or analyzing an essay, be sure two-track choices are actually as narrow as they appear.

False Dichotomy Definition

The false dichotomy is a logical fallacy. A fallacy is an error of some kind.

A logical fallacy is employed like a logical reason, but it is actually flawed and illogical.

A false dichotomy is specifically an informal logical fallacy, which means that its fallacy lies not in the structure of the logic (which would be a formal logical fallacy), but rather in something else.

A false dichotomy is presenting two choices when more than two choices exist.

This can lead to some big problems for an essay.

False Dichotomy Argument

Some sets of choices are actual dichotomies. For instance, you can either have a sip of water right now or you can choose not to. To be a true dichotomy, you can’t help but choose one option or the other. You must fall under one category or another.

On the other hand, the false dichotomy frames a choice like a true dichotomy, but in reality you can choose “none of the above.”

Here’s a simple example of a false dichotomy.

Either you are for the dam project, or you are in favor of prolonged drought conditions in the Western US.

Even giving the dam project the benefit of the doubt—that it will indeed counter drought conditions—it does not mean that a vote against the dam project is a vote in favor of drought conditions. For instance, the dam might favor one particular region’s drought relief over another. The dam project might impose on native land. The dam might impact wildlife. The dam might cost too much. Someone might think that better solutions exist.

In reality, a vote against the dam project is merely a vote against the dam project for some reason. That reason is probably not to explicitly doom the Western US to drought conditions.

False Dichotomy dam example StudySmarterThere are often more than two things to consider about an issue, flaticon.

So what makes the false dichotomy a logical fallacy?

The Logical Fallacy of False Dichotomy

To understand why the false dichotomy is a logical fallacy, you first need to understand validity and soundness.

For an argument to be valid, its conclusion must simply follow from the premises. For the argument to be sound, it must be both valid and true.

This example demonstrates how a false dichotomy breaks down.

Because a vote against the dam project is a vote for continued drought (while a vote in favor is a vote to improve drought conditions), anyone against the dam project wants the Western US to remain drought intolerant.

This dichotomy is valid because the conclusion (that anyone against the dam project wants continued drought) follows from the premise (that a vote against the dam project is a vote for continued drought). However, this dichotomy is not sound, because the premise is not true (because, in fact, there are other reasons to vote against the dam).

Fundamentally, the false dichotomy is a logical fallacy because it is untruthful, which means it cannot be used in a logical argument.

False dichotomy in persuasive writing

False dichotomies are dangerous. In essays and other forms of persuasive writing, false dichotomies can influence a readership to see the subject in terms of right and wrong, yes and no, when in reality the issue is deeper than that. False dichotomies engender anger, limit debate, and bring change to a standstill.

Say that a writer argues that you either appreciate Shakespeare or you do not appreciate literature. If this writer is able to convince his audience that this is true, then a kind of elitism now exists among that group. People who favor the literature of non-Western cultures, or who simply hold a different opinion on his plays, will be said to “not appreciate literature,” even when this assumption is untruthful. If such a notion becomes ingrained, it will be difficult to change.

False Dichotomy Shakespeare example StudySmarterFalse dichotomies stifle debate and ideas, flaticon.

When someone frames something in terms of “you’re in or you’re out,” be wary. Do not be party to elitism, classism, or gatekeeping.

If something is debatable, then it probably can’t be split into a dichotomy. Topics like these are usually too complex to be purely thought of in terms of “yes” and “no.”

False Dichotomy Example (Essay)

Here is an example of how the false dichotomy could appear in an essay.

Misato, who is the general in charge of military operations in the story, says on page 435, “You are either with me or against me,” when she decides to order the 3rd armored battalion to attack the robots piloted by her friends, her allies. Likewise, a reader must take sides. Misato is either a mutineer without any faith in her friends, or else she is a patriot able to place the good of her people over her personal feelings. Dividing the argument this way, it is easy to see that Misato must be a patriot."

This essay passage presents a false dichotomy, because someone could argue that Misato is both of these things and more. One person’s patriot might be another’s villain, so it is important not to force an extreme choice onto the readers in this situation.

Instead of creating a false dichotomy, this writer could have simply argued their point that Misato is a patriot. This would be much better, because this argument could acknowledge and counter aspects of the opposite opinion—opening up the floor to healthy debate—instead of falsely and outright rejecting the opposing view (and any view in between) as incorrect.

Tips to avoid false dichotomy in your essay

Here are three ways to avoid creating a false dichotomy in your own essay writing.

Consider the other side of an argument. Before dismissing someone’s argument as incorrect, consider if they make any good points. Don’t write off an idea as “the opposite of the truth” without serious examination.

Don’t force your readership to pick sides. When you present a choice to your reader to “join or not join” you, you might be committing the fallacy of false dichotomy. Instead, present your argument and then allow your reader to develop their opinion organically.

Does this sound harder? It is harder, but take it as an opportunity to improve your argument.

Consider the grey area, the common ground. Before you split something into two camps, examine what these “camps” might have in common. If two camps share anything in common, then you cannot accurately split the camps in two. To do so would be false, inflammatory, and potentially dangerous. People are entitled to diverse opinions, and not all ideas and solutions are mutually exclusive.

False Dichotomy Synonym

The false dichotomy is also called the false dilemma or false dilemma argument.

A false dichotomy is not the same as a hasty generalization. While false dichotomies can be hasty and lead to generalizations, the hasty generalization fallacy does not split ideas into two camps. Rather, when someone commits a hasty generalization, they reach a conclusion using insufficient evidence.

False Dichotomy - Key Takeaways

  • A false dichotomy is presenting two choices when more than two choices exist.
  • The false dichotomy frames a choice like a true dichotomy, but in reality you can choose “none of the above.”
  • A false dichotomy can lead to valid arguments, but not sound arguments. This makes their use a logical fallacy.
  • To avoid using false dichotomies, consider the other side of an argument, don't force a reader to pick sides, and consider the common ground between ideas and groups.
  • The false dichotomy is also called the false dilemma or false dilemma argument.

Frequently Asked Questions about False Dichotomy

A false dichotomy is presenting two choices when more than two choices exist.

Either you are for the dam project, or you are in favor of prolonged drought conditions in the Western US. 

Yes. A false dichotomy presents two choices when there are, in fact, many alternative choices.

Yes. Specifically, it is an informal fallacy.

The false dichotomy is untruthful. A false dichotomy is presenting two choices when, truthfully, more than two choices exist.

Final False Dichotomy Quiz

Question

What kind of fallacy is a false dichotomy?

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Answer

Informal

Show question

Question

A false dichotomy is presenting two choices when _____ exist.

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Answer

More than two choices

Show question

Question

Is the following a false dichotomy?


"You can either have a sip of water right now or you can choose not to."

Show answer

Answer

No. This is a true dichotomy. 

Show question

Question

What is a true dichotomy? 

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Answer

To be a true dichotomy, you can’t help but choose one option or the other.

Show question

Question

"You are either a human or non-human." Is this a true dichotomy? 

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Answer

Yes. What is human is human, and what is non-human is not human.

Show question

Question

How is a false dichotomy different from a true dichotomy? 

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Answer

The false dichotomy frames a choice like a true dichotomy, but in reality you can choose “none of the above.”

Show question

Question

"Either you are for the dam project, or you are in favor of prolonged drought conditions in the Western US."

Is this a false dichotomy? 

Show answer

Answer

Yes, because not everyone opposed to the dam favors drought conditions. In reality, a vote against the dam project is merely a vote against the dam project for some reason. 

Show question

Question

Because a vote against the dam project is a vote for continued drought (while a vote in favor is a vote to improve drought conditions), anyone against the dam project wants the Western US to remain drought intolerant.

Is the underlined portion a valid conclusion?

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Answer

Logically, yes, because the conclusion follows from the premise.

Show question

Question

Because a vote against the dam project is a vote for continued drought (while a vote in favor is a vote to improve drought conditions), anyone against the dam project wants the Western US to remain drought intolerant.

Is the underlined portion a sound conclusion?

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Answer

No, because the premise that "a vote against the dam project is a vote for continued drought" is not true.

Show question

Question

Can a conclusion be sound even if the premise isn't true?

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Answer

No. Soundness requires truthfulness. However, an argument may be logically valid while not being sound.

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Question

Fundamentally, the false dichotomy is a logical fallacy because it is _____.


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Answer

Untruthful

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Question

"In essays and other forms of persuasive writing, false dichotomies rarely influence a readership to see the subject in terms of right and wrong, yes and no."

True or false?

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Answer

False. In essays and other forms of persuasive writing, false dichotomies can influence a readership to see the subject in terms of right and wrong, yes and no, when in reality the issue is deeper than that.

Show question

Question

When someone frames something in terms of “you’re in or you’re out,” be wary. Why?

Show answer

Answer

Because framing ideas in this manner can lead to elitism, classism, and gatekeeping. 

Show question

Question

If something is debatable, then it probably _____ be split into a dichotomy.


Show answer

Answer

Can't

Show question

Question

What are other common names for the false dichotomy? 

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Answer

The false dichotomy is also called the false dilemma or false dilemma argument.

Show question

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