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False Dichotomy

Over the years we have spent a lot of time trying to point out our biases and to bring awareness to how our brains seem to work and our cognitive shortcomings. We are a very intelligent animal with impressive abilities to reason and problem solve. But we’re far from perfect when it comes to being rational and properly evaluating complex social phenomena, for example. In fact, we don’t reason very well at all in many cases.

We all seem to know this when it comes to evaluating the behavior of others, but seem less capable of seeing it in ourselves.

We still have a long way to go and understanding human behavior is still largely a mystery. The best that we can do is learn and educate others on what we do seem to know. The goal is to be aware of and attempt to consciously practice doing more of Kahneman’s Type II (deliberate and reflective) reasoning and less Type I (intuitive and impulsive) reasoning.

One of the things that we do notice and have a lot of evidence to support is our tendency not only to look for answers but to have a tendency toward choosing the answer which is the most self serving and in alignment with our preconceived biases.

The other extremely common tendency is to prefer simple answers to complex or nuanced ones with many different variables and contributing factors. In effect, we prefer to just cherry pick one or a few and ignore what we do not wish to address. It requires less effort and finite cognitive fuel.

Nowhere is this more obvious than our inclination to see things in black and white terms or make what is known as the false dichotomy or false dilemma mistake in reasoning.

Yesterday, we posted a piece of political satire, Farcical Family Feud – Orlando Edition, to make the point using the Orlando shooting as a case study. It was supposed to push your intuitions by using exaggerated caricatures of particular political opinions.

I’m sure some were offended or were uncomfortable with the portrayal. Maybe everyone saw just a bit of themselves in the caricatures and it caused some dissonance. We are all actually somewhere in that portrayal, just to differing degrees.

People are very passionate about this event and for very good reasons. It is troubling, angering and horrific and pushes profoundly on our intuitions, our sense of safety and our need to believe in a certain order, stability and goodness in our societies. When these things happen, it shakes our foundations. In other words, it scares us on many levels.

If you read the news, you will see a host of different sources claiming to know the answer. It is this or it is that and it is definitely not this and not that. And you will most likely be siding with the this or that which fits in nicely with your larger worldview and philosophical and political affiliations.

It is, of course, possible that both the this and the that have some contributing causal influence.

Ultimately, we look at what is presented and unconsciously assign weightings to possible causal influences.

In that aspect, we are actually doing what science was designed to do. It is not a coincidence that our brains are doing something similar. The difference is that science is more methodical, rigorous and objective than what a single brain is capable of. And in many complex phenomena, the data goes wanting and science cannot even provide us with strong or definitive conclusions. So we do our best to find our own answers.

An example might look like this:

Person 1 evaluates phenomenon A and is presented with a set of possible contributing and causal factors or variables. Let’s simply use 4.

The reality is that more often than not, there are far more and they can also be interdependent.

Causal Factor W: Unconscious weighting: 0%
Causal Factor X: Unconscious weighting: 0%
Causal Factor Y: Unconscious weighting: 50%
Causal Factor Z: Unconscious weighting: 50%

Person 2 evaluates phenomenon A and is presented with the same set of possible contributing and causal variables.

Causal Factor W: Unconscious weighting: 50%
Causal Factor X: Unconscious weighting: 50%
Causal Factor Y: Unconscious weighting: 0%
Causal Factor Z: Unconscious weighting: 0%

Their disagreement derives from the weighting that they are unconsciously placing on the causal variables.

Is it possible that all of the causal variables are operative and contributory? Is it possible that either or both has either unconsciously under or over estimated the weightings of these variables?

And this is where the false dilemma enters and more “grey” or nuanced (Type II) thinking is required. If they are both wrong and all variables are causal and operative, then it might simply be a question of ideological commitment and cognitive bias that disallows us from having fruitful and productive conversations.

It might be helpful, in this case, to possibly concede that all variables contribute and to acknowledge that we are simply disagreeing about the degree of the causal influence, not in principle.

In the case of the Orlando shooting it is possible that everything is true to some extent.

He might have been a man struggling with anger problems, mental illness and internalized homophobia from not coming to terms with his own sexual orientation. We have evidence that those phenomena can lead to both self harm and violence toward others.

And it is also possible that something can be done in terms of minimizing the possibility of easy procurement to lethal weapons with a background such as his or that lethal weapons need to be discussed, in general. It does not need to be falsely dichotomized into an all or nothing equation. That is simply not helpful or even rational.

There is a difference between the relevance and need to have an important discussion and the actual policy prescriptions. People don’t seem to grasp that distinction at all.

He might also have been a man who was influenced by religious and political ideas which fed and created those impulses. There is evidence that he had become more attracted to certain harmful ideas and it would be hard to ignore the causal influences of his father’s political and religious beliefs and strict upbringing.

The fact that he may or may not have been well informed on theological grounds or a devoted practitioner of his religion is not that important. There is plenty of evidence that one can be religiously radicalized without a formal or in-depth understanding of religious doctrine (although the evidence is still ambiguous). So the argument, for example that he supported ISIS, Al Nusra and Shia movements is not very compelling. They are effectively all close cousins, share a lot in common and his ignorance to their animosity is a distinction without much value.

The crime can be both a hate crime and an act of terrorism. The distinction is primarily a legal one and is more a discussion for crime prevention and law enforcement. They are not mutually exclusive ideas outside of those disciplines.

It is a false dichotomy to distinguish between homophobia and religion. Particular religious beliefs are clearly the greatest contributor to homophobia. Why make that distinction at all?

It is also not a sophisticated claim that we cannot address each and every one of these issues. We are not constrained to the point where we must choose and focus exclusively on one type of problem at the expense of ignoring all others.

You might note that almost no one is recognizing that none of these causal factors necessarily contradicts or excludes any other. Humans are complex, can hold internal contradictions and are influenced by many factors.

Recognizing that and our own biases might be a productive way of beginning a good faith and more rational discussion and leaving our perceived differences at the door, especially if they are mostly illusory.



About The Author

Science, Critical Thinking and Skepticism educator