• This may seem like a small matter, but I think it is a symptom of how many in our media unduly segregate their subjects into only black or white. Consider the following fallacious phrases that I have witnessed in the media:

    “Is the new gas tax going to help the environment or is it another burden on families?”

    “Are boiled lobsters animal cruelty, or are they good eating?”

    Um, why can’t it be both?

    Use of such ridiculously black vs white phrases is so prevalent in our media that I have come to the speculation that the use of false dichotomies may be taught in broadcasting and/or journalism schools:

    PROFESSOR: All right, what you need to do for every issue is ask the audience to choose between the top hope of each side of the argument.

    STUDENT: What if the answer is somewhere in the middle?

    PROFESSOR: Boring! Remember: Black or white will excite! Grey won’t pay!

    STUDENT: Right, I forgot.

    PROFESSOR: Memorize it!

    STUDENT: So how do we do it?

    PROFESSOR: Okay, give me a significant government policy.

    STUDENT: How about the recent plan to build a major new transit line?

    PROFESSOR: Good, what’s a possible benefit of this policy?

    STUDENT: That it’s good for the environment and will reduce congestion.

    PROFESSOR: Okay, and what’s a criticism of it?

    STUDENT: That it’ll cost lots of taxpayer money.

    PROFESSOR: Perfect! Here’s your headline question: “THE NEW TRANSIT LINE: ENVIRONMENTAL HERO OR MAJOR TAX BURDEN?” Now everyone has to move their philosophy to one side or the other!

    It is the popular media’s craving for the simplicity of definitive answers, I suppose, that provokes them to invoke false dichotomies – in spite of the fact that false dichotomies are among the great enemies of logic. To quote myself in the Twitter version of SethBlogs: “You either agree that false dichotomies are a blight of human communication or you believe in violence against puppies.”

    Which brings me to my very important hockey-based point. Well-known hockey player, Ryan Smyth, who grew up in Edmonton, Alberta and has played most of his hockey career for the Edmonton Oilers, is famous for his ability to go into the tough areas in front of his opposition’s net to score goals. Hockey pundits, therefore, categorize him as a tough-nosed veteran player and nothing more.

    No hockey commentator whom I’ve heard has noticed that, when he’s not in front the opposition’s net, he moves like the most iconic and distinct Edmonton Oiler skater of all time, Wayne Gretzky. I’m not saying that Smyth possesses the Great One’s magic skills (who could?), but his stride and passing motion look more like the all-time NHL scoring leader than any player I’ve ever seen.

    This should not be surprising given that Smyth would have learned his love of the game while Gretzky was winning Stanley Cups for his city’s team, and so the young Oiler fan might have patterned his style after his hero. Smyth lacks Gretzky’s bounty of abilities, obviously – perhaps part of the reason he added a toughness to his repertoire since he couldn’t score 200 points a season like his idol – but Ryan Smyth, in spite of being a lumbering skater, is—-to my eye—-one of the best passers in the league.

    And yet TV announcers who follow him always seem surprised when he provides a great pass—-I’ve never heard them acknowledge that it’s a regular part of his skill set. I guess they’ve long answered the question: “Is Ryan Smyth tough in front of the net or is he a great passer?”

    Posted by SethBlog @ 12:10 PM

  • 7 Responses

    • Tarrin Says:

      While I find this fallacy (and it’s cousin, the fallacy of the excluded middle – or is this the same one?) maddening, I think you need to give journalists a bit of stylistic leeway. Are they not sometimes simply pitching the poles of the argument?

      The man who quotes himself has a fool for a reader!

    • SethBlog Says:

      Thanks, Tarrin. I don’t disagree that the motivation for using this logical abomination is probably initially a stylistic one (that’s, in fact, part of why I think it’s likely taught in broadcasting school). However, in a world where critical thinking is an endangered species, I think the result is the same: both audiences an broadcasters start to forget the grey and the middle.

      Meanwhile, I did not “quote” myself. I quoted the SethTweets wing of SethBlogs – that’s a whole different department!

    • TomM Says:

      It was interesting to have the false dichotomies pointed out,but I agree with Tarrin in finding it a device for capturing interest more than anything. I suppose it may be a reflexion of the polarization of our society between, simplistically, the optimists and pessimists. I do see it as being manipulative on the part of the journalist. The Ryan Smyth thing was just an excuse for Seth to get up on his soapbox and promote him under the guise of being a false dichotomy, which it isn’t even remotely akin to! Good thought provoking stuff though.

    • Smorrel Says:

      When I was trying to explain this concept to my mother, I said, “it’s like picking who your favourite child is… either your daughter or your son”. I figured she wouldn’t be able to choose one or the other and my point would be made.

      Unsurprisingly, she said I was the obvious favourite. It was pretty black and white. Sorr-rry, the truth hurts brother. I guess next time I should have gone with the lobster example.

    • SethBlog Says:

      TomM: Impressively, you have found a middle ground between the dichotomy that false dichotomies are always either (A) evil no matter what their stylistic intent (per SethBlogs), or (B) they are sometimes okay when they are meant as happy rhetorical devices (per TarrinComments). Unfortunately, in this case, we have a correct dichotomy: false dichotomies are ALWAYS harmful since they pollute logical thinking. As for my use of this brilliant argument to promote my Ryan Smyth propaganda. Well spotted.

      Smorrel: Your mother may have chosen SmorrelBlogs over SethBlogs, but didn’t she also once say that she doesn’t like chocolate – i.e. your favourite food? Which is it, Smorrel? Which is it?

    • Natalie Says:

      I think that there is a difference between “false dichotomies” and comparable, albeit simplistic ones. Isn’t your argument that these journalists are judging disparate elements that shift the perspective and thus can’t really be compared? For instance, the boiled lobsters example compares “animal cruelty,” the perspective of the eaten, with “good eating,” the perspective of the eater, so of course, in this case and all of the other examples in your rant, it can be both, and there can never really be a middle ground because they’re intrinsically incompatible. But if you contrasted two opposing poles from the same perspective, ie. “Boiled lobsters: animal cruelty or mercy killing?,” or “Boiled lobsters: good eating or unappetizing crustacean?”, then you’ve got yourself a debatable issue and the only risk there would be simplifying the argument and failing to acknowledge cousin middle ground.

    • SethBlog Says:

      Brilliantly put, Natalie! (Indeed, while I will take credit for provoking your excellent point, I must admit that I hadn’t broken my argument down as scientifically as you have. 😉 I think you’re right. While in some situations (say, pure capitalism vs pure socialism) the middle ground is probably the answer, in the above examples the two sides are NOT mutually exclusive and so both could be true simultaneously. Our duty, then, is to recognize that a boiled lobster is both animal cruelty and good eating, and then to prioritize and decide which fact is more important to us.

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