Logically Delicious is part of a continuing series within Thinking About Thinking. I’m hunting Bad Takes in The Wild, and exposing the logical fallacies that fester within.
THE FALLACY: No True Scotsman
No True Scotsman is a sort of combination of moving the goalposts and special pleading – each fallacies that will get their own entries in due time!
In a No True Scotsman fallacy, someone lays down a universal rule and, when presented with evidence that this rule is not so universal after all, doesn’t change the rule. Instead, they arbitrarily assert that these exceptions are not really in the category the rule describes.
Sound confusing? Well, no worries. This fallacy is perhaps best illustrated with …
The classic example given for this fallacy involves two Scotsmen sitting on a park bench. One says to the other “No Scotsman would ever murder someone.”
Chuckling, the second Scotsman pulls out his newspaper, revealing the headline “MAN FROM SCOTLAND MURDERS 20.”
Taken aback, the first Scotsman says “Well! No TRUE Scotsman would ever murder someone!”
WHY IT’S WRONG
No True Scotsman is wrong because a universal rule that is faced with an exception must either adapt to consider that exception or be disproven.
No True Scotsman does neither – it simply pretends the example doesn’t exist by defining it as some mythical “non-true” version.
WHAT IT IS NOT: A revision in light of new evidence, a case where the supposed exception literally does not apply.
No True Scotsman is a fairly easy fallacy to avoid. All one must do is acknowledge the existence of outliers and exceptions in their analysis. If a universal statement is given and outliers and exceptions are brought to light as evidence, that statement can be revised to a more particular one.
Similarly, there will be times when the exception legitimately doesn’t disprove the rule.
If, for example, I say “Most football fans in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area cheer for the Steelers,” the existence of a Patriots fan in that region doesn’t disprove the claim, so long as most football fans in the region continue to be Steelers fans.
HOW TO CONFRONT THE FALLACY
This advice goes for any logical fallacy, really, but confronting the No True Scotsman is simple: Don’t let them wriggle out of it.
If your interlocutor(!) starts insisting that the counter-example you’ve provided is not a true member of a given group, ask them to define in their own words what makes someone a member of that group. Then, check if your example meets that definition.
That’s it for this week’s installment of Logically Delicious. Next week in this space, I’ll be looking at something which is not a logical fallacy per se, but which nonetheless haunts our discourse.
Until next time … keep thinking!
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