Thursday, February 11, 2016

False Dichotomies v Real Dichotomies

I listened to the You Are Not So Smart podcast today. It was episode 69: The White and Black Fallacy. I'm subscribed to it so I guess it is obvious I enjoy the show. But it was hard to listen to this one and I knew immediately it would be hard because of the first example they used: the quote from George W Bush's Nov. 9, 2001 speech:
Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.  
I knew, when this quote led off the discussion that the analysis of this fallacy would be at least a little bit muddled. Unfortunately, the episode confirmed...well not the worst of my potential expectations, but definitely my more pessimistic ones.

On the good side, the panel gave an accurate definition of the fallacy: "Presenting an argument as if it offered only a specific limited number of choices when in fact there are more." They also pointed out the limited number need not be only two. And they gave the other terms for the fallacy: The False Dichotomy and The False Choice. After that, the episode was a woeful mess.

1. An argument does not fall into the False Choice fallacy simply because it only offers two or some other limited number of choices.

This point must come first. If a woman tells you that in order for her to marry you, you must join the Methodist Church, that might not be a fallacy. Those might well be your only choices: Join a Methodist Church and marry her or not marry her.

Consequently of all the potential titles for this episode, the one they chose was the worst.  The term False Dichotomy is a bad term for the fallacy because, as the panel pointed out, it need not be limited to two choices. The arguer could offer 3 or 4 choices when in fact there are 5 or 20.  But the term White and Black Fallacy doubles-down. It carries an implication that an argument is fallacious because it only offers two choices: "You are saying we only have two choices, therefore you are making a White and Black error. Life is not only white or black."

This is the fraternal twin of the False Choice: The False Equivalency. A statement offering two choices is not in error if only two choices exist. This is an important caveat that the panel failed to point out.

2. George W. Bush's statement was not a False Choice error because he was not making an argument. 

Fallacies only apply to logical statements -- not declarations of intent. The panelists made a Category Error. Pres. GWB was not making a persuasive argument. He was announcing a policy. He was not engaging in moral philosophy. He was a president with an actual military that dwarfed every military on the planet by many fold. He was not at that point attempting to convince anyone that what he was saying was metaphysically true. He was saying that his administration would act as if it were true going forward and nations who harbored international terrorist organizations should set their expectations accordingly. The following  is the quote in context:
"Our response involves far more than instant retaliation and isolated strikes.  Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign, unlike any other we have ever seen.  It may include dramatic strikes, visible on TV, and covert operations, secret even in success.  We will starve terrorists of funding, turn them one against another, drive them from place to place, until there is no refuge or no rest.  And we will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism.  Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.  From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime."
Remember that the United States was, at the time, toppling the Afghanistan government known as the Taliban that had refused the demands from the United States to turn over the Al-Qaida leadership based in their country -- who were effectively operating as the head of the Taliban's army. The Taliban's response was essentially "Very sorry hear about your problems in New York City, the Pentagon, and Pennsylvania. But stay out of Afghanistan. And, no, we're not going to do anything about the AQ organization operating more than freely within our domain." Previously, the foreign policy of the US government was to openly treat this as, to some degree, an impediment. GWB was declaring that he was eliminating that wall as even a public policy.

But even for less morally supportable contexts, this has nothing to do with the False Choice error. When Captain Hook offered the Lost Boys the choice of joining his crew or walking the plank, that was not a false choice. It was a real one. Many child soldiers were offered a similar choice by the pirate African armies. In this case, they are offered practical choices, not classically logical ones. Yes, there might be a world of other choices, but those are the only ones available to them at that moment.

A forced choice is not necessarily a False Choice problem. There comes a time in almost everyone's life when they are offered a chance to commit to some course or action or to ally with a particular side or employer -- a situation where if they opt to reject the offer, a middle-option is not available. That is not a submission to irrationality.

3. Even if George W. Bush's statement was intended as a logical statement, it would not have been an error simply due to its construction.

a. Again, see False Equivalency. "You are with me or against me" is not the same thing as "You are with us or you are with the terrorists." There might have been a practical equivalency (as opposed to a logical one) or there might not. But if the panel was aware of this, they didn't say so. The podcast even said that GWB's statement was a mere reformulation of  that well-known choice, and presented Annikan Skywalker's quote from Star Wars Episode 3 as an example:
Darth Vader: "If you're not with me, then you're my enemy."
-- a quote which Lucas wrote with the intention for it to be an unsubtle reference to GWB's speech.

To which Obi-Wan responds, paradoxically, with an absolute of his own: 
"Only a Sith deals in absolutes."
And lets not forget that Yoda said "Do or do not. There is no try." The lesson here is that if you are going to George Lucas's screenplays for positive examples of classical logic, you have truly gone over to the Dark Side.

b. And again, the statement "You are with me or against me" or some superficially similar statement is not necessarily an error. The panel made a very strong implication that it was. Disproving this sort of statement might not be as easy as the panel implied. This is especially true if the statement is "You are with me or you are effectively against me."

For an example, I'll offer George Orwell's argument that the British pacifists in World War II were effectively supporting the causes and gains of the Axis Powers:
'Pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist. This is elementary common sense. If you hamper the war effort of one side you automatically help that of the other. Nor is there any real way of remaining outside such a war as the present one. In practice, ‘he that is not with me is against me’. The idea that you can somehow remain aloof from and superior to the struggle, while living on food which British sailors have to risk their lives to bring you, is a bourgeois illusion bred of money and security. Mr Savage remarks that ‘according to this type of reasoning, a German or Japanese pacifist would be “objectively pro-British”.’ But of course he would be! That is why pacifist activities are not permitted in those countries (in both of them the penalty is, or can be, beheading) while both the Germans and the Japanese do all they can to encourage the spread of pacifism in British and American territories. The Germans even run a spurious ‘freedom’ station which serves out pacifist propaganda indistinguishable from that of the P.P.U. They would stimulate pacifism in Russia as well if they could, but in that case they have tougher babies to deal with. In so far as it takes effect at all, pacifist propaganda can only be effective against those countries where a certain amount of freedom of speech is still permitted; in other words it is helpful to totalitarianism.'
Do better, You Are Not So Smart podcast. Or do not. There is no try.

UPDATE
David McRaney, the host of YANSS podcast, responded over email very nicely regarding my problems with the podcast and thanked me for my feedback. The following was part of my re-response to his email:
...I don’t think ["You are with me or against me] is a good example for a White and Black fallacy. And White/Black is tricky. Although a False Choice can be easy to counter (as the panel explained), whether or not the final solutions to a question are effectively white and black is not so easy. Even though the real world is full of gray, it is also persistently binary as well – in aggregate and in the particulars – as those logicians, The Lovin’ Spoonful, taught us. Even natural selection, with all its potentially diverse results, has a binary solution for traits that are eliminated. Much of the process of producing well-formed arguments (or coming to a rational decision) boils down to drilling far enough into a question until the positive-negative elements reveal themselves.