Seeking what is true is not seeking what is desirable.
— Albert Camus.
People are not naturally gifted with logical thought (look at how many “true” religions there are). But they sure are naturally good at illogical thought and the ability to bluff their way through arguments that seem superficially sound but are, in fact, pure rhetoric – whether their sophistry is by design or just ignorance driven by desperation.
It is also true that people are generally unwilling to change their stance on a subject once they have committed themselves to a particular point of view. Once someone makes a claim about the paranormal, for example, if they are faced with an argument that renders their claim invalid, then they become even more entrenched in their position. That phenomenon is called the backfire effect, because although they have had their claim invalidated, they now feel the need to fight back harder and find even more reasons to support their original claim. A sceptical observer might decisively refute a paranormal claim (or at least prove that the claim is not true in the form it has been presented), but that will not change the opinion of the paranormal claimant. In other words, proving a claim to be invalid merely reinforces that belief in the mind of the claimant.
It leads to some interesting exchanges between believers and sceptics, but as a sceptic myself, I already know that a believer will not be converted into a rational thinker through rational argument. This blog is aimed at those who are agnostic about the paranormal and the other things I deal with here, as well as people who have found themselves becoming sceptical about wild claims and would like to know more about how to deal with the paranormal, supernatural, quackery and other claims made by dyed-in-the-wool woomeisters.
One rhetorical technique that comes naturally to everyone without a second thought is a technique that, if successful, forces the opponent in a debate or argument to make a choice between two opposite propositions, neither of which might even be relevant to the discussion.
The False Dichotomy
I had this piece of sophistry thrown at me by a self-professed expert in matters paranormal in a previous post (and I promised him I would do another post about the subject: this is it). The commenter stated that many military personnel have evidence of alien visitation, and I was challenged to say whether those people were either telling the truth or lying.
Notice that the paranormal “expert” is offering only two options for me to choose between. The exact quote is:
“So, do you believe these astronauts, military personnel and others are telling the truth, and that extraterrestrial visitations are therefore likely to have taken place, or do you believe they are all lying?”
Stating it that way can be awkward because there is a certain emotive content attached to it. It attempts to force the person on the other side of the argument into a difficult situation – after all, would you want to say that you think those astronauts, etc., are telling the truth when you believe they are actually wrong? More importantly, would you want to be seen to be accusing someone of being a liar without being able to prove it? There could also be be legal implications for you if you did so. Keep in mind a very important point about this: someone might say something they genuinely believe to be true but which might, in fact, be false. In a situation like that, they are not telling lies, they just happen to be wrong. (Think of any TV quiz game: when a contestant who is trying to win the star prize worth thousands of p0unds misses out by giving a wrong answer, was he just telling lies? No, he believed he was right but got it wrong — and probably kicked the cat when he got home.)
In this particular case, my commenter is trying to force me to make a choice between two propositions when in fact there are other possibilities that he is no doubt aware of, but he is hoping that I will be drawn into making a choice between propositions of his choosing. It is a tactic that can often work in an informal face to face debate where the conversation is sometimes fast paced and there is not much time to think about it. But if you’re aware of the fallacy, it is less likely that you will be caught out.
In the example above, I am challenged to accept that the people making claims of UFOs are either being truthful, or telling deliberate lies. It can be summarised this way:
1) Are they telling the truth? Or:
2) Are they telling lies?
But there are other options:
3) They might be honest in their beliefs but have been fed with misinformation by a government that finds it useful to cover up secret aeroplane testing by encouraging people to falsely believe they are seeing UFOs rather than secret military hardware. (That doesn’t mean that a government must be promoting a belief in UFOs, just that they don’t necessarily discourage the belief if it distracts people from suspecting they are observing secret military tests.)
4, etc.) There are numerous other possibilities one could think of, each with its own level of plausibility or lack thereof.
Presenting two options to support an argument when in fact there are more is the logical fallacy called the false dichotomy, sometimes called a false dilemma. In more formal terms, it is known as the fallacy of the excluded middle (not to be confused with Aristotle’s law of excluded middle, i.e., the principle of non-contradiction – another post, later).
This example is in the same vein as the old “have you stopped beating your wife” question. A “yes” implies you used to do it; a “no” implies that you do it – even though you might never have raised a finger to your wife. (A yes or no answer also implies that the person being questioned actually has a wife.)
In this example, the false dichotomy is nothing more than a rhetorical ploy by your opponent to try to put you into a position where you are forced to make a choice between two propositions, neither of which you or he can necessarily prove or disprove, thereby deflecting attention away from the fact that there are other options, and the fact that there is no evidence to support the claims being made in the first place.
Whenever someone you are debating offers you a simple choice between two opposing options, you should be wary immediately. Just ask yourself, “Are there any other possibilities?”
The false dichotomy is not the same as a genuine choice between two mutually exclusive propositions. Are alien spaceships hidden away in a military facility at Area 51? They either are or they aren’t, and there is no in-between. It’s an objective claim that must be true or false.
If I were to say to any self-professed UFO “expert” something like, “Are you a clueless gobshite, or a cynical exploiter of gullible people?” I would be committing the same fallacy. There are other possibilities, including the possibility that he or she is suffering from a mental disorder; or that his or her belief is genuine, but there is an inability on their part to separate fact from fantasy (delusion); they might have no training in science and are therefore unable to understand why their claims of extraterrestrial visitation are highly implausible; they might have invested so much time and energy publicising their beliefs that it would be too humiliating for them to admit that they cannot prove any of their claims. There are more options, not too difficult to think of, but you probably get the idea. (One other option is that the UFO claimant is correct in his or her assertion that aliens are here, but that’s where their claims go askew: ultimately, they cannot produce confirmable evidence, but they can always think of reasons why they can’t produce it – conspiracy theories and anything else that will get them off the hook. “Apologetics” might be a good word for it.)
In a debate about the paranormal (or anything else), it comes down to one simple thing: can the claimant produce evidence to support their claims, or can they not? It’s a simple dichotomy, but not a false dichotomy. If someone says that aliens are here, they are or they are not. Similarly, the claimant has the evidence to support their claim or they do not.
If they insist that they do have the evidence to prove whatever paranormal claim they are making, then the onus is on them to prove it. The more excuses they make for not showing it publicly, the louder they deserve to be laughed at.
One horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms. It is not only more effective; it is also vastly more intelligent.
— H L Mencken, in The American Mercury, January, 1924