Fallacy #1: Either-Or

Before we begin covering fallacies, we should be clear on what the word means. A fallacy is a deceptive statement. It is something that is false, but is made to appear true. In other words, it is a trick of words and emotions, used to make people believe something that isn’t actually so.

But that does not mean that everyone using a fallacy is trying to hurt you. In most cases, they are doing it ignorantly, because they were deceived by the trick earlier. What they’re really doing is passing along the mistake.

So, while we want to notice deceptions (fallacies) that are thrown at us, we should remember that most of the people using them are not personally malicious; they’re acting out a malicious script that was started by others. The damage to you is the same, but their personal guilt is less.

Now, let’s move on to our first fallacy:

The either-or fallacy (also called the excluded middle, bifurcation, the false dilemma and even other names) operates like this:

A speaker makes an impassioned argument, leading to an either-or choice: Either Option A or Option B. And, almost always, they’ll apply pressure for you to pick one or the other immediately.

That is, two alternative statements are presented as the only possible options. In reality, however, many more possibilities exist.

I ran into this trick many years ago, listening to someone proposing a new environmental law, because a factory was dumping poison into a river used by several communities. (Or so they claimed.)

The speaker went through a list of horrible things that were happening or might happen to the people living along the river… and especially to the children. He went on to explain that millions of concerned people had vehemently condemned this, and concluded his argument with a choice: Either you support our new law or you are supporting the abuse being done by the evil factory; abuse that has been universally condemned.

The argument was fallacious, of course, but nearly everyone in the audience went along with it.

I say the argument is fallacious because many other options existed:

    • Their law was certainly not the only law that could be written. A team of law students could probably come up with dozens of alternate versions in a day or two.
    • The people along the river could bring lawsuits against the factory. If the claim of poisoning the river was true, all of these people could legitimately claim that they were being poisoned. Legal systems – already in place – were specifically designed to deal with such issues.
    • If the people along the river wanted to be a bit fiesty, they could bring water from the river, hand it to the factory owners and insist they drink it. I wouldn’t suggest going much farther than this, but it would certainly make their concerns clear.

So then, many other options existed for this problem, not just the speaker’s law or poison in baby’s cereal.

The either-or fallacy, then, involves a false, deceptive and manipulative choice.

How The Trick Works

As I said, nearly everyone in the audience went along with this trick. And so I’d like to show you how it worked:

    • The claim of poison was made quickly. It may have been true, but the speaker didn’t spend time proving it. Rather, he used it to stir up emotions and then moved along. This is crucial to success when manipulating people: The flow of emotions is key, precisely because emotions displace careful thinking.
    • He described the effects on the poison in vivid images, chosen for their emotional impact. He particularly used children because nearly all humans have a strong instinct to protect babies and small children.
    • The speaker claimed that the crime – poison in the river – had been strongly condemned by large numbers of people and powerful organizations. This, strange though it may sound, was a threat, and a strong one. What the speaker was implying (saying it without actually saying it) was this: “If you don’t agree with me, all those people and powerful organizations will hate you, and are likely to hurt you.”
    • Finally, with his emotional pressures at their peak, he presented the false choice: Support this law or be a monster.
    • “Choose now” is used to cement you to the choice before the manipulation wears off, as it would once you had time to think about it. If you say “yes,” however, you’ll tend to stick with it (even defend it) because anything else would involve calling yourself a sucker.

I think you can see why the trick worked so well. Emotional reactions shove reason, balance and perspective aside. In simple terms, we can describe this as turning off our thinking circuits and only using our reactive circuits. But, believe it or not, it gets still worse:

First: If others in the audience start screaming “Yes!” and “Support the Law!” the conformity pressures go sky-high. And you should be aware that serious manipulators will plant friends in the crowd to do precisely this. It works.

Second: Humans have an innate tendency to see things in a binary way. We see this very clearly in word association tests and games, where the fastest and most common answers tend to go like this:

Hot. Cold.

Happy. Sad.

Hard. Soft.

Left. Right.

Wet. Dry.

Apparently this is primitive brain circuitry we inherited; but in any event, dropping to hot/cold, happy/sad and so on are the easiest things for our brains to do, and they involve almost no purposeful thought. That makes them perfect for emotional manipulation.

What To Keep In Mind

Simone Weil once said, “Conscience is deceived by the social.” That’s clearly true, but perhaps more to the point, conscience and reason are intimidated by the social. And the important thing about that is that you can feel when it happens.

When the peddler of emotional manipulation does his or her work, you can feel the change in your mental state: You fee less certain of yourself, more afraid, and suddenly joining with the crowd feels like a safe and desirable thing to do. This is the moment you must learn to notice.

When you feel these things, you must pull yourself away. I recommend that you physically step away if you can. But certainly you must pull away mentally. At first this can be challenging, but the more you do it, the easier it becomes.

Once you step away and thoughts start running through the center of your mind instead of being displaced, you should be able to find the flaw in the argument easily enough.

The crazy thing about manipulation is that once you pull your mind out of the emotional flow, the tricks they play are so stupid… so transparent… that it seems crazy for people to be suckered by them.

The real lesson here, aside from having this fallacy pointed out to you, is to step away from confusion and self-doubt. But, we’ll be talking much more about that as we proceed.

More next time.


Paul Rosenberg


Why Americans Shouldn’t Respect Offices or Laws

It has become a common belief among Americans that they should “respect the office” of an official, even if they don’t respect the person holding that office. The same, of course, goes for “the law.” And while I understand that people saying such things are trying to be virtuous, they are mistaken.

Respecting the office and the law are unAmerican, and I’m going to show you precisely why, and mainly from the mouths of the American founders.

I’ll start with a passage from the soul of the American experiment, the Declaration of Independence, which I’ll condense to make my point:

We hold these truths to be self-evident… that all men are endowed by their Creator with inherent and inalienable Rights… that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted.

What I want you to see from this is the relationship between primary and secondary. According to the Declaration, we are the primary and governments are the secondary… the derivative.

Government exists because people create it, to serve themselves. They are in no way secondary to it. It is secondary to them.

And if that wasn’t clear enough, the Declaration gets specific in the very next line:

Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.

Again, the people are primary, government is derivative. Government serves at our pleasure. It is our right to abolish it if we so desire, just as we have the right to close our business if it no longer turns a profit.

Yes, There Is More

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Introduction To Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is an essential human skill, but it is little-taught. Once upon a time critical thinking courses were held to be essential, but they have since vanished from schoolrooms, either rolled into optional Logic courses (which are deathly boring to most students) or pushed aside simply because teachers and administrators resented students tearing through their arguments.

But for whatever reasons, critical thinking has all but disappeared from modern education. Nonetheless it remains essential, and especially for young students who need reasons to trust themselves and their opinions.

Because of this, and because the parents of young children have asked me for it, I’ll be devoting a series of posts to the fallacies of logic. An understanding of the primary fallacies, and especially how to apply them, is central to critical thinking. This material will end up as a book, but I’d very much like for you to read these installments and send them to the young people in your life. Children should be mentally and emotionally prepared to face a difficult and confusing world, and this is precisely the kind of material that will prepare them.

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We Must Stop Trying To Be Unassailable

Guilt, as I’ve noted before, is the great vulnerability of the Western world. I’ll pass up an explanation of why for today, but the validity of this statement is made ever so clear by the fact that political types rise to power by championing one class or another of victims, portraying everyone else as somehow guilty. It works brilliantly and regularly, all across the West. Bizarre and openly unbalanced people leap into power this way.

Guilt makes Westerners behave very stupidly. It has brought them low and could extinguish their civilization altogether. I don’t think it will go quite that far, but I’m an optimist.

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What Geniuses Believe

quotesIt struck me some time ago that the people we think of as “geniuses” tend to arrive, over time, at surprisingly similar sets of conclusions. It further strikes me that a simple list of such thoughts might be of value.

And so, here is a list pulled from my quotes file and presented without commentary. Enjoy:

Albert Einstein

  • Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.
  • Nothing will end war unless the people themselves refuse to go to war.
  • Never do anything against conscience, even if the state demands it.
  • The world is in greater peril from those who tolerate or encourage evil than from those who actually commit it.
  • Small is the number of them that see with their own eyes and feel with their own hearts.

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2020: The Year The System Showed Its Real Face

As we grew up, nearly all of us were inundated with stories of our glorious national fathers, our beautiful democracies, and so on. And being young, we for the most part believed them. The system gave us our prosperity, our comfort, our medicine, our sense of importance.

Soon enough we learned that the system was also stupid and perverse, but we found a way around that contradiction by blaming one segment of the system or another: The Blues or the Greens or the Red are the problem; it could not, must not, be that the system itself is the problem.

Then came 2020, and the system revealed its true face.

I suppose I should be fair and add that the system wasn’t always as rotten as it is now, but regardless, it wasn’t able to prevent the rot that overtook it.

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Return Engagements (Book Two) PART 27

(Continued from part twenty-six)

I am now a year past these events and I think I’m effectively past the difficulties that rose upon my return. One thing remains, however, and that is a recurring need to get off this rock and to head out into the open. This is not something that eats at me every day, but it emerges and re-emerges every so often. And it shows no signs of going away. Sometimes I even shy away from science fiction shows (which I tend to like) because they would frustrate me: Needing to go but unable to go.

Ultimately it comes down to physics: If we can develop space tech that is effective and affordable, those of us who long for more and better can escape the barbarism that rules this planet. And as time goes on, more and more who realize they are built for better things will follow.

The fear, of course, is that we’d leave a “ghetto planet” in our wake. But I don’t believe that will happen, and for two primary reasons: First, that ruling systems would break down once the best milk cows ran from their pasture. Secondly, that the imaginations of those who remained would open, and they’d consider the possibility that there’s more to experience than the hive-life they’ve known. Sure, the process would be sloppier than this description, but I’m convinced those two things would bear out over time.

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Live Dangerously And You Live Right

The title of this post, live dangerously and you live right, comes from the great author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and he was ever so correct. The life of meek obedience is a sin against the self. It is a surrender of mind and passion. It’s a half life at best.

But unquestioning compliance is the easy way. It’s what the system is designed to extract from you. It’s what school trains you for, it’s what corporations expect of you, and it’s what government demands.

In the end, compliance is extorted from you by manipulation and violence. Everyone does it, so you’d better do it, and if you don’t, you’ll get in a lot of trouble. We’ve all experienced this, but we often fail to call it by its true name.

And yet Goethe is correct. If you want to live as an energized, expansive, open, and honest being, you have no choice but to live dangerously… because the system has made real living dangerous. Only what services the machine is “safe.”

And it wasn’t just Goethe who thought this. I want you to see the thoughts of other men and women on this subject:

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Return Engagements (Book Two) PART 26

(Continued from part twenty-five)

Sleeping in front of that grand window, I began a dream. And what it brought to me was something I don’t think I could have grasped to the depth I did anywhere else… that the problem with our present world is not so much mayhem and destruction, but the fact that scope of thought and scope of action are so miserably limited within it. The problem, as H.L. Mencken described in his own way, is not that life is tragic, but that it’s a bore.

The world of my space friends – of the grown-up portions of our galaxy – is unconstrained. They run from one interest to another. I don’t get the impression that it’s some silly fantasy life, but they do what they choose, and even when necessities press upon them, there is no other will being imposed, only the necessities of circumstance.

My days on the spaceship seemed to funnel into that revelation. (Yes, I know revelation is a packed word, but that’s what it was to me.) Being away – far, far away – from the billions of minds who think it’s good and right for some smooth-talking thug to order them around and take their earnings… who are confused day and night by idolatries that their neighbors are willing to suffer for and sometimes to die for… who have no inkling of the treasures they hold inside themselves.

Being clear of that, the stupidity of the present Earth life was palpable. In fact, it struck me in the dream as a particular unpleasant odor, as strange as that sounds.

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Do You Have A Plan For Improving Your Spouse?

All of us with husbands and wives (mates, whatever) are perfectly positioned to make them better human beings. But it seems to me that most of us squander it. Today I’d like to help fix that.

With the possible exception of your children, there is no one you’re likely to be closer to than a spouse. And that even goes for a lot of people with problem spouses; being with someone day and night over a protracted period conveys more understanding than pretty much anything else. Along with that comes opportunity. No one can present and support more ideas; no one can better nurture attitudes; no one will have more “right times” to insert a useful word, feeling, encouragement or compliment.

And so the position of spouse can be of immense effect. What I’m suggesting today is that we use it consciously and intelligently.

I am fully certain that we can make each other better people. Wives can make their husbands better and husbands can make their wives better. No one is better placed, no one has better reason for doing it, and no one will be better able to make course corrections as they go.

This, in a better world, would be glaringly obvious to us and would come to us naturally. It doesn’t, of course, and so I’ll start by going through the major obstacles I see.

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