No True Scotsman

Of all the elements in the critical-thinker’s tool bag, fallacies tend to have the coolest names, such as Argumentation from Outrage, Tu Quoque, or my personal favorite: No True Scotsman.

This informal fallacy is best illustrated in story form:

A proud Scot opens the newspaper and reads about a violent murder that took place in London and declares: “No Scotsman would ever do such a thing.” He then turns the page to read about an even more grisly murder committed by a fellow Scot in Glasgow and claims “No true Scotsman would ever do such a thing!”

I thought about this fallacy while following a recent hostage-taking episode in which a gunman entered a synagogue in Texas and took the Rabbi and members of the congregation hostage for eleven hours before the temple members escaped and the gunman was shot dead by the FBI.

When I first heard about the crisis, I made an assumption that the attacker was likely an anti-Semitic American, possibly a member of a Right-wing organization, based on the location of the standoff (Texas) and the motive of the killer behind the most outrageous attack on a synagogue in US history: the Tree of Life massacre in Pittsburgh.

Once more news was available, it was clear that all of those assumptions were incorrect and that the Texas hostage-taker was a British national, originally from Pakistan, motivated by religious extremism. As the true nature of the attacker became clear, I could feel my opinion shift regarding what this attack might represent.

I suspect that I am not the only person to experience this kind of mental whiplash, which is where No True Scotsman comes into play.

In our tribal political age, it rarely takes more than a few minutes before some horrific event like what took place in Texas last week becomes political ammunition, often while the crisis is still unfolding.

On one side, you have those who want to widen the circle of guilt as much as possible in order to tar anyone who falls into the same category as a violent extremist (such as all conservatives or all Muslims) based on the criminal acts of an individual. This would be an example of the Association Fallacy, another informal fallacy commonly referred to as Guilt by Association.

On the other side, you’ve got True Scotsmen who are ready to explain that those who commit violence or even murder in the name of an ideology or religion have nothing in common with those who share that belief system, something no “true” member of that group would ever countenance.

While the True Scotsman fallacy might seem like an antidote to Guilt by Association, more often than not you will see it applied just as selectively (often in tandem) with the Association Fallacy in order to make the claim that their extremists embody the essence of a belief system I loathe, while our extremists are actually mentally ill lone wolves who represent no one and nothing but themselves.

I will leave it to readers to try spot these forms of fallacious thinking in the news coverage - as well as news coverage about that news coverage - of this specific event (which will likely not involve the words “fallacy” or “Scotsman”). But to get to the broader goal of this site -- helping people to better understand what’s going on in the world and to make better decisions based on that understanding -- there is something important we can learn by monitoring what is going on in our own heads.

For example, my initial reaction to the story provided a useful reminder that all of us (including those trying to teach others the principles of critical thinking) are vulnerable to fallacious reasoning, especially in situations where time is short, information is scarce, and issues are tied closely with pre-existing beliefs or personal identity.

These are the very sorts of situations where we need to slow down, admit what we know and don’t know, and avoid potentially unproductive ways of thinking, such as force-fitting new situations into hardened categories, or blindly accepting or defying authority figures (including those in the aforementioned media) telling us what we should believe.

A fancy term for the process of thinking about your own thinking is metacognition, a subject I’d like to turn to next.