Bronze-level articleNo True Scotsman

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The No True Scotsman (NTS) fallacy is a logical fallacy that occurs when;

  • someone changes the definition of a word to make a claim true by default,[2] or
  • a term is preemptively given a biased definition designed to exclude elements vulnerable to criticism, yet making sure to still include all things praiseworthy.[3]

Instead of acknowledging that some members of a group do indeed have undesirable characteristics, the fallacy tries to enforce purity by redefining the group to exclude them. When used in the past tense, NTS can also be used to retroactively disqualify group membership based on future wrongdoing. In this scenario, the axiom becomes "having done something bad just proves how you never really were a member of this group in the first place", a statement as comfortably shallow (and unapplicable to reality) as the claim that your sports team is the best, because it is by definition "the team that wins the game".

The fallacy does not occur in defining a group narrowly to begin with, but rather in continously narrowing the definition of said group by specifically excluding evidence that contradicts an initially broad (and generally flattering) definition. Thus, the NTS fallacy; the suggestion that the "best" member of a group represents it - is essentially the opposite of the Weak Man Fallacy; the suggestion that the "worst" member of a group represents it (a practice also known as nutpicking).

By virtue of Despite all of these remarkable qualities, the NTS fallacy is a vital tool in the promotion of denialism.


[edit] Origins

The term was coined by Antony Flew, who gave an example of a Scotsman who sees a newspaper article about a series of sex crimes taking place in Brighton, and responds that "no Scotsman would do such a thing."

When later confronted with evidence of another Scotsman doing even worse acts, his response is that "no true Scotsman would do such a thing," thus disavowing membership in the group "Scotsman" to the criminal on the basis that the commission of the crime is evidence for not being a Scotsman.

However, this reasoning is fallacious, as there exists no premise in the definition of "Scotsman" which makes such acts impossible (or even unlikely, in the case of Scots). The term "No True Scotsman" has since expanded to refer to anyone who attempts to disown or distance themselves from wayward members of a group by excluding them from it.

[edit] In logic

You don’t need to go to church to be a Christian. If you go to Taco Bell, that doesn’t make you a taco.
—Noted theologian Justin Bieber[4]

The NTS fallacy takes place when;

This is generally done in order to make the case that no element worthy of criticism can ever be held against said group.

P1: All X are Y.
P2: All X are clearly not Y.
C1: All true X are Y.

In practice, application of the NTS fallacy is far more subtle than this, but the line of thinking always boils down to a denialistic attitude towards counterexamples.

[edit] Exceptions to its use

Noteworthy is that the fallacy does not occur if there is a clear and well understood definition of what membership in a group requires, and it is that definition which is broken (e.g., "no honest man would lie" or "no theist can be an atheist" and so on). Thus, the NTS fallacy only occurs when the group is later redefined for no valid reason.[5]

It is also important to understand that the NTS places no restrictions on whether a definition is sensible or not; it only concerns if a definition is applied consistently or not.

[edit] In religion

No man can ever be opposed to Christianity who knows what it really is.
—Henry Drummond, the Scopes Trial

With respect to religion, the fallacy is well used, often even overused. Religious apologists will repeatedly try to use the No True Scotsman argument to distance themselves from more extreme or fundamentalist groups, but this does not prevent such extremists actually being religious - they themselves would certainly argue otherwise. Moderate Muslim leaders, for example, are well known for declaring Islamic extremists as "not true Muslims" as Islam is a "religion of peace."

Similarly, moderate Christians, such as those in Europe, are sometimes aghast when viewing their fundamentalist counterparts in the US, immediately declaring them "not true Christians," even though they believe in the same God and get their belief system from the same book. Many of these statements stating that the extremists are not true believers are often used as a reaction against Guilt by Association. The NTS fallacy likewise occurs when believers attribute any and all good fortune to divine intervention on their behalf, yet insist that the same can never be true when things go awry.

The NTS fallacy can also run the other way when it comes to extremism. Extremists will make a religious statement and when someone points out that there are many believers who don't believe the extremist's viewpoint, the moderates are deemed to be not true believers (ie: Christians who support gay marriage are not "real Christians" or Muslims who support women's rights are not "real Muslims"). Modern pagans do it all the time, perhaps even more than other religions, due to the fact that there is no agreed-on orthodoxy for the whole group, with some well-established practices in one setting being considered unpalatable in others. Silver Ravenwolf, one of the best selling "leaders" of neopagans, has done this with multiple ancient, well-established practices.

It's a tricky business, as being a member of a religious group, to the minds of those involved, encompasses adhering to a certain standard of behavior. For example, charity can certainly be called an essentially Christian ethic, considering the emphasis that Jesus placed on it. The man himself would most definitely disavow the greedy and "What's mine is mine" mindset of many right-wingers who call themselves Christians. However, strictly speaking, a Christian is defined as "one who professes belief in the teachings of Jesus Christ"; there's no rule saying they have to do it right.

Atheists can also be guilty of the fallacy, such as someone hypothetically exclaiming that "true atheists" don't believe in ghosts or UFOs when such disbeliefs actually have nothing to do with an atheistic philosophy (although they can be linked by concepts of observational evidence and rationalism).

[edit] In politics

The True Scotsman fallacy can be used to uphold positive, neutral, or negative stereotypes by portraying people who do not conform to them as exceptions. An example would be claiming that feminists, being "well-educated and having strong opinions about gender issues," do not speak for "typical" women. It is also commonly used as a form of name-calling (i.e. "Real men eat meat", "Real americans don't question the existence of God", "Real artists don't use a computer", etc.)

Phrases such as "un-American," "un-Christian", "un-Islamic" or "inhuman" are widely used in politics and media to distance oneself from a subject, defining them as outside the bounds of what the speaker considers to be truly 'American,' 'Christian', 'Muslim' or 'human' behaviour. These phrases strongly suggest the No True Scotsman fallacy, since the use, for example of "un-American" to describe specific political activities by some American citizens implies some special definition of "American" beyond mere nationality.

In recent years with the advent of the Tea Party Movement, the turn of phrase "Republican in name only" (RINO) has come into more prominence from people who want to disassociate from other people of the party. The trouble with this phrase is that it is not useful at all since its use tends to be a replacement for "Republican I don't agree with, despite being in the same party." People who use this phrase tend to throw it even if there is only one issue the supposed RINO doesn't toe the party line on, such as being Pro-choice. The term of art Cuckservative has similarly been used for otherwise conservative persons who believe that racial and gender inequality persist in the United States. This also exists on the other side as well, but having terms that identify subgroups like Blue Dog Democrat is far less damning and more useful.

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