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Critical Thinker's Dictionary

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false dilemma (false dichotomy)

“Were we designed or are we simply the end result of an ancient mud puddle struck by lightning?” --example of a false dilemma from a press release for "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed"

The false dilemma (or false dichotomy) is a fallacy of reasoning that omits consideration of all reasonable alternatives. Sometimes called the either-or fallacy, one poses what looks like a true dilemma--I must pick one or the other--when, in fact, there are other viable alternatives. (There can be false trilemmas, etc.)

For example, if someone were to demonstrate apparent psychic abilities, one would commit the fallacy of false dilemma if one were to reason: Either she's a fraud or she is truly psychic, and she's not a fraud; so, she must be truly psychic

There is at least one other possible explanation for her apparent psychic abilities: She genuinely thinks she's psychic but she's not. A Sylvia Browne, a John Edward, or a James Van Praagh may appear to some people to have psychic abilities, but they need not be frauds if they are not truly psychic. They may be frauds, but they may genuinely believe they are in contact with another dimension of reality. In other words, they may be deluded. This does not mean that they are mentally ill, but their false beliefs may be so deeply embedded in their personalities that no amount of evidence or argument could convince them of their errors.

A person may mistakenly come to think she is psychic by having an experience that she cannot explain by natural means. This inability to explain the experience except as paranormal may be reinforced by others. Her experience and the encouragement of others may lead her to think that she has a "gift." Things that may be pure coincidence may appear to her as signs of clairvoyance. She may be a very sensitive person and pick up on the needs of others quickly and effectively, making them think she has paranormal powers when, in fact, she is simply very sensitive and observant. She may be very good at reading body language or at unconsciously picking up subtle cues such as eye movements or nearly undetectable bodily movements that communicate information. People may ask her to say things about what she sees or feels, hoping she'll make contact with the future or with the dead. She may oblige and say things like "He thanks you for the music," "I see money coming your way," or "Your brother is about to make a significant change in his life." People may find meaning and significance in these statements. This reinforces both her belief in her powers and theirs.  There is a dynamic that occurs between mediums and clients who believe in their powers. Sometimes this dynamic is very powerful and emotional. In groups, the effect can be contagious. "She says thanks for Fluffy. Does that make sense?" A woman starts crying uncontrollably. "That's our daughter! She was only three. She loved her fluffy blanket. I used to tuck her in every night with her favorite blanket." Soon, half the audience is crying, convinced the medium has made contact. Why? The medium threw out a line and a poor woman connected it to her dead daughter. All of the specific information about this fluffy blanket was provided by the client, yet the audience, and perhaps the medium herself, is led to believe a dead child has spoken to a total stranger in a bizarre way (cryptic message in a public forum).

So, in addition to being truly psychic or a fraud, a person who claims to be psychic may be deluded. Her ability to convince herself and others of her paranormal powers is not diminished by this delusion. In fact, it is enhanced by it. By believing in her powers and receiving much communal reinforcement, she becomes more confident and certain of her gift. When she says something that is clearly wrong or that the client can't make sense of, she notes that her powers are not infallible or that she's right and the client just isn't cooperating or thinking hard enough. She may become very skilled at a variety of cold reading techniques without even knowing what cold reading is. Again, being deluded does not mean she is stupid or insane. It means skeptics will find it nearly impossible to convince her that what she is doing is not evidence of psychic ability.

Here is another example of the false dilemma: Either the universe came about by chance or by design. It didn't come about by chance. So, it must have come about by design. There is at least one other possibility: The universe appears to be designed but it isn't. The universe has always been here in one form or another, and it takes whatever form it has at any given time due to a combination of accidental factors governed by inherent laws and constants. A variation of this example is the notion that either everything has a reason or everything is random. Even so-called random variations in evolution happen for various reasons. Another variation of the fallacy is the claim that either evolution or intelligent design is true. There may be a designer of the universe who used evolution as part of the design.

Another example of the false dilemma: L. Ron Hubbard claimed that either cells are sentient or the human soul enters "the sperm and ovum at conception" (Dianetics: 71). Both notions can be false and probably are.

Another example: Either the eyewitness saw an alien spacecraft or he's a liar. Perhaps he's simply mistaken.

Another: Either this person was truly abducted by aliens or she's crazy. She's not crazy. So, the most probable explanation for her claims is that she was abducted by aliens. A person can be deluded without being insane.

And another: As a skeptic, you are either a debunker or an investigator. What do you call someone who uses his own investigations to debunk a claim?

I'll conclude with a personal example. Someone once asked me: Is your highly prized "skepticism" based upon scientifically provable fact or personal, emotional, ulterior motive?

further reading

Logical Fallacies

Last updated 17-Dec-2013

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