O Come All Ye Pedants
O Come All Ye Pedants

I was elated when I found that argument techniques are popular enough to warrant a book with animal drawings. Animals in clothes makes me happy. Animals in clothes illustrating fallacies makes me more excited than a coulrophilic at the circus.

Illustration for article titled Illustrated Bad Arguments  No True Scotsman
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Today, I want to use a page from this book to write about a fallacy I love and one that I see a lot in online conversations: No True Scotsman! When people stubbornly stick to their original position, they often commit this fallacy

Illustration for article titled Illustrated Bad Arguments  No True Scotsman

A general claim may sometimes be made about a category of things. When faced with evidence challenging that claim, rather than accepting or rejecting the evidence, such an argument counters the challenge by arbitrarily redefining the criteria for membership into that category.

For example, one may posit that programmers are creatures with no social skills. If someone comes along and repudiates that claim by saying, “But John is a programmer, and he is not socially awkward at all”, it may provoke the response, “Yes, but John isn’t a true programmer.” Here, it is not clear what the attributes of a programmer are, nor is the category of programmers as clearly defined as the category of, say, people with blue eyes. The ambiguity allows the stubborn mind to redefine things at will.

The fallacy was coined by Antony Flew in his book Thinking about Thinking. There, he gives the following example: Hamish is reading the newspaper and comes across a story about an Englishman who has committed a heinous crime, to which he reacts by saying, “No Scotsman would do such a thing.” The next day, he comes across a story about a Scotsman who has committed an even worse crime; instead of amending his claim about Scotsmen, he reacts by saying, “No true Scotsman would do such a thing.”

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The fallacy savvy will recognize this fallacy as a specific type of strawman fallacy. If you don’t, no worries.

If you want to see this fallacy in actions, head over to any online conversation about nerds or about porn or acting talent or the best breakfast food.

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A: Sex work is terrible for women.

B: I know a girl who is a phone sex operator and she loves it.

A: Phone sex is not sex work.

B: I know a woman who is in porn films.

A: Then she is an exception.

No True Porn Star!

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