No True Scotsman
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Logic and rhetoric
“”Real unicorns have curves!
|—Real articles have opening quotes!|
The No True Scotsman (NTS) fallacy is a logical fallacy that occurs when a debater defines a group such that every groupmember possess some quality. For example, it is common to argue that "all members of [my religion] are fundamentally good", and then to abandon all bad individuals as "not true [my-religion]-people". This can occur in two ways:
- During argument, someone re-defines the group in order to exclude counter-examples. Instead of backing down from "all groupmembers are X" to "most groupmembers are X", the debater simply redefines the group.
- Before argument, someone preemptively defines some group such that the group definitionally must be entirely "good" or entirely "bad". However, this definition was created arbitrarily for this defensive purpose, rather than based on the actual qualities of the group.
NTS can be thought of as a form of inverted cherry picking, where instead of selecting favourable examples, you reject unfavourable ones. The NTS fallacy paves the path to other logical fallacies, such as letting the "best" member of a group represent it. Thanks to these remarkable qualities, the NTS fallacy is a vital tool in the promotion of denialism.
In short: Both arguers should agree on a definition and stick to it.
“”Imagine Hamish McDonald, a Scotsman, sitting down with his Glasgow Morning Herald and seeing an article about how the "Brighton Sex Maniac Strikes Again". Hamish is shocked and declares that "No Scotsman would do such a thing". The next day he sits down to read his Glasgow Morning Herald again; and, this time, finds an article about an Aberdeen man whose brutal actions make the Brighton sex maniac seem almost gentlemanly. This fact shows that Hamish was wrong in his opinion, but is he going to admit this? Not likely. This time he says: "No true Scotsman would do such a thing".
Thus, when McDonald is confronted with evidence of a Scotsman doing even worse acts, his response is that "no true Scotsman would do such a thing." This denies membership in the group "Scotsman" to the criminal on the basis that the commission of a heinous crime is evidence for him not having been a Scotsman (or at least a "true" Scotsman) in the first place.
This reasoning is clearly fallacious, as there exists no premise in the definition of "Scotsman" which makes such acts impossible (or even unlikely).
P1: All X are Y.
P2: Clearly, not all X are Y.
C: 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.
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 devoid of meaning as answering a question regarding which sports team you're rooting for in a game as "the team that wins".
NTS is a fuzzily-defined fallacy, because the nature of "groups" themselves is fuzzy. It's hard to definitively say where one group ends and another begins (think Catholics versus Protestants: how many Catholic traditions does one have to follow to be Catholic?). Thus, there are some notable exceptions to NTS.
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 if the group is later redefined for no valid reason.
NTS places no restrictions on whether a definition is sensible or not. NTS only concerns if a definition is applied consistently or not.
“”No man can ever be opposed to Christianity who knows what it really is.
|—Henry Drummond, The Spiritual Writings of Henry Drummond|
With respect to religion, the fallacy is well used, often even overused. Religious apologists will repeatedly try to use NTS to distance themselves from more extreme or fundamentalist groups (and vice versa), 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 (i.e., Christians who support gay marriage or accept evolution as fact 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.
“”Argentina was then under the rule of these neo-Nazi generals, and I was sent La Prensa from Buenos Aires, the big newspaper in Argentina−there was a big article saying, "You can't read this guy's linguistics because it's Marxist and subversive." The same week I got an article from Izvestia in the Soviet Union which said, "You can't read this guy's linguistics because he's idealist and counter-revolutionary." I thought that was pretty nice.
Language-users can use NTS to uphold positive, neutral, or negative stereotypes by portraying people who do not conform to them as exceptions. For example note the claim that feminists, being "well-educated and having strong opinions about gender issues", do not speak for "typical" women. NTS also commonly occurs as a form of name-calling (e.g. "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 regards as truly "American", "Christian", "Muslim" or "human" behaviour. Such phrases strongly suggest NTS is in use, 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 circa 2009, the label "Republican in name only" (RINO) has come into more prominence from people who want to disassociate from certain fellow-supporters of the Grand Old Party. The trouble with this phrase is that it is not useful at all - 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 of the Great U.S. Political Divide as well, but having terms that identify subgroups like Blue Dog Democrat is far less damning and more useful.
- Moving the goalposts
- Fake geek girl
- Exception that proves the rule
- Ultimate attribution error
- Cherry picking
- See the Wikipedia article on No true Scotsman.
- See the Wikipedia article on True Scotsman.
- The No True Scotsman Fallacy, Atheism/Agnosticism About.com
- No True Scotsman, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Your logical fallacy is no true scotsman, YLFI
- A hilarious spin-cycle in and out of No True Scotsman
- A YouTube video on the fallacy
- And you never were a Scotsman, either!
- Real quotes have sources!
- "‘No True Scotsman’ Fallacy". logicalfallacies.info.
- Flew, Antony (1975), Thinking About Thinking: Do I Sincerely Want to Be Right?, London: Collins Fontana, p. 47, ISBN 978-0-00-633580-1
- Chomsky, Understanding Power p.210, The New York Press (2002).