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False Dilemma

(also known as: all-or-nothing fallacy, false dichotomy [form of], the either-or fallacy, either-or reasoning, fallacy of false choice, fallacy of false alternatives, black-and-white thinking, the fallacy of exhaustive hypotheses, bifurcation, excluded middle, no middle ground, polarization)

Description: When only two choices are presented yet more exist, or a spectrum of possible choices exists between two extremes.  False dilemmas are usually characterized by “either this or that” language, but can also be characterized by omissions of choices.  Another variety is the false trilemma, which is when three choices are presented when more exist.

Logical Forms:

Either X or Y is true.


Either X, Y, or Z is true.

Example (two choices):

You are either with God or against him.

Explanation: As Obi-Wan Kenobi so eloquently puts it in Star Wars episode III, “Only a Sith deals in absolutes!”  There are also those who simply don’t believe there is a God to be either with or against.

Example (omission):

I thought you were a good person, but you weren’t at church today.

Explanation: The assumption here is that if one doesn't attend chuch, one must be bad.  Of course, good people exist who don’t go to church, and good church-going people could have had a really good reason not to be in church -- like a hangover from the swingers' gathering the night before.

Exception: There may be cases when the number of options really is limited.  For example, if an ice cream man just has chocolate and vanilla left, it would be a waste of time insisting he has mint chocolate chip. 

It is also not a fallacy if other options exist, but you are not offering other options as a possibility.  For example:

Mom: Billy, it’s time for bed.

Billy: Can I stay up and watch a movie?

Mom: You can either go to bed or stay up for another 30 minutes and read.

Billy: That is a false dilemma!

Mom: No, it’s not.  Here, read Bo’s book and you will see why.

Billy: This is freaky, our exact conversation is used as an example in this book!

Tip: Be conscious of how many times you are presented with false dilemmas, and how many times you present yourself with false dilemmas.

Variation: Staying true to the definitions, the false dilemma is different from the false dichotomy in that a dilemma implies two equally unattractive options whereas a dichotomy generally comprises two opposites. This is a fine point, however, and is generally ignored in common usage.


Moore, B. N., & Parker, R. (1989). Critical thinking: evaluating claims and arguments in everyday life. Mayfield Pub. Co.

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Uncomfortable Ideas: Facts don't care about feelings. Science isn't concerned about sensibilities. And reality couldn't care less about rage.

This is a book about uncomfortable ideas—the reasons we avoid them, the reasons we shouldn’t, and discussion of dozens of examples that might infuriate you, offend you, or at least make you uncomfortable.

Many of our ideas about the world are based more on feelings than facts, sensibilities than science, and rage than reality. We gravitate toward ideas that make us feel comfortable in areas such as religion, politics, philosophy, social justice, love and sex, humanity, and morality. We avoid ideas that make us feel uncomfortable. This avoidance is a largely unconscious process that affects our judgment and gets in the way of our ability to reach rational and reasonable conclusions. By understanding how our mind works in this area, we can start embracing uncomfortable ideas and be better informed, be more understanding of others, and make better decisions in all areas of life.

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