12 Days of Scepticism: Day 7 – No True Scotsman

Day 7 in this 12 part series brings us another oddly named fallacy: No True Scotsman (NTS). This is fairly common in my experience and is similar to but subtly different from the good old Moving The Goalposts. NTS is when you form a set of criteria to define something but then you narrow your definition to exclude an example you don’t like that would have previously fulfilled your criteria.

For example:

Person A: No scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.

Person B: My uncle Angus loves putting sugar on his porridge.

Person A: Well no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.

It’s function is basically to create an inherently biased definition designed to exclude elements that would leave the group open to criticism. Instead of acknowledging criticism it seeks to denounce it by artificially excluding it as irrelevant.

Watch out as it doesn’t have to be couched in exactly those words, it could take the form:

Person A: No Englishman would wear trousers like that.

Person B: My mate Dave wears trousers like that all the time.

Person A: Ah, but he’s spent a lot of time in France.

Other than taking cheap shots at the French, one potentially controversial use that frequently crops up in the media of late is in how muslims are defined. In the days following the latest atrocity by a group claiming to be fighting for Islam the media will normally have examples of moderate muslims decrying the perpetrators, arguing that Islam is a religion of peace and that no true muslim would commit said outrage.

On the one hand I find this a bit unnecessary as I wouldn’t expect a CofE vicar from Surrey to have to denounce some vile crime committed by a Ku Klux Klan member in the US. No one would assume the KKK is representative of all Christians. On the other hand, however, as there is no solid, objective definition of what constitutes a member of any given religious group, to argue that a certain person is excluded by redefining your criteria to suit your own view is, strictly speaking, fallacious and not a valid argument.

Personally I’d taken religion out of it. It’s not relevant that they are a muslim, Christian or anything else; they’re just a nasty, murderous psychopath.

The other main religious example I can think of is when a creationist says: show me one example of a transitional fossil. You then present them with the vast catalogue of transitional fossils that exist but they respond by either redefining ‘transitional fossil’ to remove all of your examples or by then asking for transitional fossils between all of your examples. And so the God of the Gaps is born.

Anyway, genocide aside, look out for people arbitrarily changing things to suit their own needs, no true sceptic would do so.

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