Fallacy: Black or White Thinking

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Understanding fallacies isn’t just helpful for winning arguments – they can be helpful in achieving emotional balance. I first learned about this fallacy when volunteering to help people in crisis as part of our training.

In that context, the logical error goes like this:

I fail at a lot of the things I have tried. I am a failure and worthless.

A black or white fallacy or binary thinking occurs when you have presented a conclusion as if only two possibilities exist, when in fact there are many.

It is perhaps one of the most divisive kinds of thinking that persists in our conversations.

 

Examples of black or white fallacies

We’ll come back to the first example listed above, but first, let’s consider another:

Jacob: Things are getting crazy out there, we really should do more rigorous background checks on who can buy a gun.
Steve: It’s in the constitution that the people have the right to bear arms. Do you mean to get rid of our constitutional rights?

Steve is a victim of bipolar thinking. He feels that citizens can either bear arms or they can’t – he doesn’t acknowledge any of the many other options, including that most citizens might be granted the right to bear arms, while a select few who may be unstable won’t.

This is Steve’s argument in logical form:
Premise 1: The constitution says the people have the right to bear arms.
Premise 2: Jacob says there should be a screening process to make sure unstable people don’t have access to guns.
Conclusion: Jacob wants to rob us of our constitutional rights.

Note: “the people” means something totally different from “everybody.” Jacob has not argued that “the people” should not have the right to bear arms – only that some people should be restricted. Steve’s conclusion is not supported by his premises.




I fail at a lot of the things I have tried. I am a failure and worthless.

Premise 1: I have failed.
Conclusion 1: I am a failure.
Conclusion 2: I am worthless.

We can see that Conclusion 2 is clearly not supported by the premise and is not valid. But what of Conclusion 1?

This is where logical validity and logical soundness sometimes confuse issues. One could say:

Premise 1: I have failed.
Premise 2: People who have failed are classified as failures.
Conclusion: I am a failure.

This is technically a deductively valid argument. It is the argument’s soundness that is in question here. If we were to consider both premises (and therefore the conclusion) true, we would have to create a long, long (long, long, long) list of other people who are also considered failures that includes some of the most successful people you have ever heard of.

In this case, we would consider the following argument both unsound and logically invalid:

Premise 1: I have failed.
Premise 2: People who have failed are classified as failures.
Conclusion 1: I am a failure.
Conclusion 2: I am only a failure.
Conclusion 3: I am not successful.

It may be true that people who have failed are classified as failures (thus making you “a failure”), but to say that being a failure excludes you from being other things – such as a success – is not logical.

Technically, those are all separate arguments but blablabla. Who has time for that.


Image source.

Author: A. Primate

Mammal. Organizes itself into complex social hierarchies. Very particular about objects - even those that can't be eaten or used for shelter. Seemingly aware of itself as separate from the environment.

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