Dichotomy Is False

A false dichotomy is a logical fallacy. You may be presented with alternatives A and B, when there is at least one other alternative C that is also available. You may then be presented with arguments that force you to choose either A or B, and reach some conclusion as a consequence. The danger lurking here is that unless you actively seek out additional alternatives, you may not easily notice that you’re falling into a trap.

In classical logic, the principle of explosion says that anything may be proven from a contradiction. In Latin, this idea goes by the phrase ‘ex falso [sequitur] quodlibet’ — from falsehood, anything [follows]. If wishes were horses, beggars would ride…a true statement. And so, when you start with a false dichotomy, the conclusion you might arrive at doesn’t carry the force of logic: it may be true or it may be false; the argument itself is null and void.

In my experience, all dichotomies are false in the real world. In other words, there are always more options; you only have to look a little deeper. Often, the options presented are the extremities of reasonable ideas that actually span a spectrum of possibilities.

Checking Facts

Society is having a hard time fact-checking politicians these days, although the roots of the problem are quite ancient. There is a natural human tendency to assign categories to things. It is very easy and very human to categorize knowledge into things you believe are true versus things you believe are false. This true-or-false dichotomy, like all others in the real world, is false. To put it in more colloquial terms, there is always some truth to what you label as false (and vice versa).

Here’s the catch, once you label something in your mind, you are psychologically less inclined to alter the label, even in light of new facts. The easiest way for someone to convince you of a falsehood is to club it together with something you already believe to be true. When you know a man to be virtuous, you’re far more likely to attribute his sins to factors outside of his control. Over time, these falsehoods build upon each other to create a warped worldview.

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

—Richard Feynman

Every individual who wishes to avoid this sad fate should try to relentlessly pursue the truth, using the principle of falsifiability or refutability expounded by Karl Popper back in 1934. Falsifiability is the capacity for a statement or hypothesis to be contradicted by evidence. Here’s one way of applying this idea: you should believe something to be true only if you’ve made a good faith attempt to prove that it is false, and failed to do so despite your best efforts. This is exemplified in the ‘black swan’ argument: if someone told you that all swans are white, you should look for colored swans — not white ones — to validate the truth of the statement. Look for evidence that disconfirms your belief.

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In everyday situations, you might be faced with ideas that conflict with each other, some that you are more inclined to believe than others. As a relentless pursuer of truth, your objective should be to identify the most believable ideas, and look for evidence that these ideas are wrong. By critiquing the ideas you wish to believe, you make them more robust, understand the nuances and half-truths, and end up with something that is far closer to the truth than where you started. The truth will not make you feel warm and fuzzy, but it will be grounded in reality.

Avoiding Extremes

“-Ism’s in my opinion are not good. A person should not believe in an -ism, he should believe in himself.”

—Ferris Bueller, in ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’

There are many forces in the world that polarize opinion, creating more of the same false dichotomies that we want to avoid in social discourse. Social media platforms have made it easy to reach millions of people and convey information — and misinformation — in real time, reinforcing the beliefs of opposing camps.

For instance, we hear debates about capitalism versus socialism (sometimes incorrectly equated with communism). Both of these are unrealistic models, figments of our imagination. In practice, every sovereign nation has to adopt policies that may be inspired by either model, or maybe something else altogether.

The real debates usually need to be on the merits and demerits of specific policies. People with ulterior motives are inclined to assign labels to these policies and associate them with existing factions. For instance, in a debate on government-sponsored healthcare, one side may be painted as being ‘socialist’, even though the actual debate is far more nuanced. Interestingly, it is easy to recognize this kind of labeling when it works against us, but when it works in our favor, we might be quick to assume it’s because we’re right.

That is the most dangerous time of all — when we are starting to believe we are right, but haven’t yet looked for evidence countering our belief.

The Elements of Journalism

If there is one thing that you learn from Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s book The Elements of Journalism, it is that the challenges journalism faces today in the digital information age are, in many ways, the same ones that it has faced over the past two centuries. As the so-called Fourth Estate, it is unsurprising that the powers that be would attempt to wrest this institution into subservience. And as the political landscape has evolved, and new technology has emerged, the means of assault have changed, but the aims of this long-running struggle have remained the same.

The Elements of Journalism Cover Image
Cover Image

The authors begin with an explanation of what journalism is, by clarifying what it is not. The primary purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing. This distinguishes it from entertainment, or entertainment-posing-as-journalism. Its first obligation is to the truth and its first loyalty is to citizens. Ah, the truth! That’s where things start getting complicated. While some might throw up their hands and claim that the truth is subjective and ultimately unknowable, journalistic truth is far more pragmatic but still effective – it is the outcome of a discipline of verification. To put this differently, a true journalist is committed to understanding and sharing the truth, and they trust in the journalistic process of verification to ensure that they are not blinded by their own biases. Objectivity, in this sense, is not about eliminating personal biases, but relying on the integrity of the process to elevate the truth above all else.

The use of the term citizens is intentional, contrasted against the idea of consumers. Citizens have a responsibility towards free society, whereas consumers look out for their own interests. Citizens are active, whereas consumers are passive. Journalism is the process of community-building with the participation of vigilant and engaged citizens. Journalism is a conversation with citizens that helps them understand matters that are important for them to know. A free press is a barometer for the democratic values of society.

The authors dispel some common myths about journalism. The goal of a good journalist is not to simply state facts, but to interpret and synthesize facts into a true understanding of the world. A good journalist builds trust with readers by explaining how they reached their conclusions, and what relevant ideas they discarded along the way. The discipline of verification thus extends to readers and good citizens, and the journalist’s job is to provide transparency into their methods to help readers question and validate their conclusions. Good journalism need not be ‘balanced’ when the truth is not – attempting to be ‘balanced’ when the facts paint a clear picture otherwise is a form of dishonesty. Good journalism does not need to shy away from opinion, but it must be clear about the line between substantiated fact and unsubstantiated opinion.

The Elements of Journalism is thought-provoking, in that it raises deep questions about the future of society. For democracy to thrive in a seemingly post-truth age, the discipline of verification must ultimately be adapted to work with the rapid production and dissemination of information that modern technology makes possible. While we may not be able to prevent misinformation from being distributed through social networks, what we may be able to do instead is dampen its adverse consequences, by offering people transparency into the methods of production and helping them verify for themselves the trustworthiness of sources.

For the interested reader, the American Press Institute website has more principles drawn from this book, and explored in depth.