A false dichotomy, sometimes called a false dilemma, is where someone presents only two, usually extreme, results to an argument when in reality there is probably at least one other option or perhaps even a full spectrum of possibilities.
It will commonly take the form:
x cannot be both A and B
B is false
The absolute classic beloved by Hollywood screenwriters everywhere (and Dubya Bush) is: you’re either with me or against me. In religious circles the common trope is evolution and creationism cannot both be true, evolution is wrong therefore Jesus. In healthcare it will normally go: medical science is yet to precisely explain this one particular aspect of a health problem therefore herbs and magic are the cure to what ails you. In the Middle East anyone who is pro-Palestine is often portrayed as an antisemite who doesn’t think Israel has the right to exist.
Like all fallacies this one can be used deliberately or accidentally (hopefully that’s not fallacious), either way other choices that usually occupy the middle ground have likely been excluded.
I am a naturally shy guy. It’s rarely the case that I am willing to put myself centre stage and yet here I am this week writing thousands of words criticising the way that most people think. One of the reasons I’m so presumptuous as to think that I can do this is that I know that I’ve used every one of these fallacies myself. I was a serial offender for many years and whilst many hundreds of hours of study and analysing the way I think has helped rid me of the bulk (I hope) of my terrible arguments I know that I’m by no means yet rid of them all.
One such that I was only recently disabused of was very similar to a false dichotomy, it was a false continuum. This is where there is an ambiguous line of demarcation between two entities and so the two separate things are erroneously said to be one thing. I used to argue that there was no difference between a religion and a cult other than religions tend to have been around longer and be better organised.
Whilst there is no defining red line between the two that doesn’t mean that the major world faiths are cults, they’re not. As is nearly always the case, the truth is far more complicated. There are a long list of criteria that a cult may have, things like; an authoritarian and charismatic leader that increasingly becomes the subject of adoration or worship; the economic, mental or physical abuse of members; the use of a coordinated program of thought reform; isolation from non-members; creating a ‘them and we’ mentality; a low tolerance for ambiguity of thought – the list is a long one. The more of these criteria an organisation has the more of a cult it is. Most mainstream branches of the major religions don’t fit the criteria and so, whilst it was an argument that I used to enjoy making and considered a strong one, I have been forced to concede that my argument was wrong.
Anything worth knowing is probably really rather complicated, it will take time to learn its ins and outs. Falsely representing things in an oversimplified, facile manner won’t help push forward human knowledge. I’ll brook no dissent on this one: it’s my or the highway.