How to Avoid the False Dilemma Fallacy in Academic Writing
  • 4-minute read
  • 4th February 2021

How to Avoid the False Dilemma Fallacy in Academic Writing

Students and researchers need to be aware of fallacies (i.e. bad or faulty arguments) in their work. Here, for example, we’re going to look at the false dilemma fallacy. Read on to find out what this is and how to avoid it in your writing.

What Is the False Dilemma Fallacy?

The false dilemma fallacy involves incorrectly presenting something as a choice between a limited set of options (usually two). Also known as a ‘false dichotomy’ or ‘either-or fallacy’, such arguments typically have two key features:

  1. They present options as mutually exclusive. This means only one can be true (e.g. X could be true, or Y could be true, but X and Y can’t both be true).
  2. They present these options as exhaustive. This means there are no other possibilities available (e.g. X or Y could be true, but there is no Z option).

However, arguments presented like this are often misleading. For instance, they may leave out other options or hide the possibility of finding a middle ground somewhere. You should therefore treat such arguments with caution.

Let’s take a look at some examples of false dilemmas to see how they work.

Example False Dilemma #1

We can see an example of an argument with misleading or ‘false’ exclusivity below:

Coursework is a better predictor of final grades than exams among most school children. As such, we should eliminate exams and focus entirely on coursework.

This focuses first on how well coursework and exams predict final grades, then goes on to argue that this makes coursework the only good option.

However, this is also a false dilemma! It misleadingly presents a choice between exams and coursework as an ‘either-or’ situation. But schools can use both methods of assessment, so they are not exclusive alternatives. A more pertinent question would be how they are used and the balance between the two.

Example False Dilemma #2

In terms of false dilemmas excluding possibilities, take the following argument:

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Either we reintroduce capital punishment or accept that crime levels will rise.

Here, the issue is presented as a set of two mutually exclusive, exhaustive options:

  1. Reintroduce capital punishment.
  2. Let crime levels rise unchecked.

Taken at face value, this may seem like a convincing argument, since it implies that being against the death penalty is essentially being ‘pro-crime’.

But is this a fair way of presenting the debate over capital punishment? The causes of crime are complex and disputed. Consequently, it seems unlikely that criminality in general can be addressed with one simple solution. And if we present the death penalty as the only way to reduce crime, we’re guilty of the false dilemma fallacy.

How to Avoid the False Dilemma Fallacy

The key in both of the examples above is that they force a choice between mutually exclusive possibilities. But while the simplicity of such black-and-white thinking may be appealing, it can lead us to overlook the reality of the situations at hand.

The best way to avoid the false dilemma fallacies is thus to be sceptical about ‘either-or’ situations. If something is presented as either X or Y, with no other possibilities, think about what may have been left out from the situation.

This isn’t to say that ‘either-or’ arguments are always wrong! Sometimes the circumstances or logic dictates a binary choice. The key, though, is being aware of when something has been falsely set up as a binary.

Another helpful tip is to get your work proofread. This will help you to communicate your ideas clearly, ensuring that you don’t accidentally present something as a false dilemma. Submit a free trial document today to find out more.

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