False Dichotomies and Binary Simplification.

datePosted on 16:46, February 22nd, 2013 by Pablo

One of the most useful analytic constructs in social science is the so-called “great dichotomy.” The idea is to distill an argument into a series of either/or propositions for the purposes of explanatory clarity. The point is not to see the world in binary fashion, as if all matters of social import can be reduced to good/evil, black/white propositions. Instead, the idea is to break down the logical and epistemological sequence embedded as component parts in any particular argument, particularly those of a normative nature. One can then deduce the overall strength of the case being made based on the logical consistency of those parts.

Scholars understand that complex realities are not reducible to mere dichotomies. But using the great dichotomy as part of a methodological approach to social science helps separate that which is relatively binary in nature and that which is a bit more complex. For example, X kills B. One dichotomous question, answerable with a simple yes or no, would be “was X drunk at the time?” That in turn can help illuminate the question as to why X chose to kill, as in “X killed Y after he caught Y in bed with his partner after being out on the piss all night.” The follow-up question would then be “would he have killed if he was not drunk?” If the answer is “yes,” then alcohol is not a significant contributing or mitigating factor. Although there is more to that sorry tale, the use of a dichotomous approach allows focus to narrow on its more complex aspects. That is the stuff of social science explanation. The key is to understand that dichotomous approaches are analytic tools designed to get to the gist of an issue, but are not meant to accurately represent or explain by themselves a larger and more complex question. They help remove extraneous clutter and provide better backdrop clarity on a given issue.

In contrast, binary or dyadic simplification is the practice of reducing explanations of social phenomena to an either/or, good/bad, black/white proposition. Not only is this a practice that deviates from the original mathematical use. It is one that ignore complex realities and which can lead to the construction of false dichotomies that impede clear and rational understanding of the subject in question. The danger of binary simplification is that it not only provides easy answers to complex problems for the intellectually lazy or dishonest. It also provides them with easy enemies and scapegoats because it poses the dichotomy as a zero sum proposition: things that are bad in the world or with which they disagree are the result of some other’s actions, and those actions are inimical, dangerous or otherwise contrary to their preferred version of reality. Thus the “other” must be resisted, vilified and in some cases defeated.

The real sad part is that many people, perhaps most people, are prone to accept binary explanations for complex phenomena. Thus we hear things like “guns do not kill people, people do,” “if gays are allowed to marry than marriage means nothing,” “feminism destroyed the family unit and has made men into girly boy eunuchs,” “abortion is murder,” or “you are either with us or against us.” These are one-line explanations for multi-volume problems or, said differently, comic book answers to complex questions.

I am prompted to write this in light of some stupid remarks in our own comment threads and another one-liner that made the rounds in the aftermath of Mr. Prosser’s cretinous opinions about Muslims. The one-liner, which was bandied about on the comment threads of right-wing blogs as well as those of the NBR goes as follows: “Not all Muslims are terrorists but all terrorists are Muslims.”

I will not dwell on how ignorant that remark is. I will just point out that, among others, the IRA, the Oklahoma City bombers, the Red Army Faction, assorted Latin American guerrilla groups, Greek anarchists, the Tamil Tigers and–dare I say it–a host of non-Muslim governments practice terrorism on a regular and often sustained basis. Yet it is that binary simplification that allows people like Mr. Prosser to believe that actions such as banning Muslim (or presumably Muslim looking, whatever that is) men from boarding planes is the solution to the terrorist problem (and I should point out that the practice of using planes as guided missiles or blowing up commercial airliners did not start with Muslims).

What I find most interesting is that those most prone to adopting binary simplistic approaches to social explanation, to include the construction of false dichotomies in order to make their arguments, tend to inhabit the (dare I say dyadic?) extremes of the ideological spectrum. Those on the Left blame everything on corporate greed while those on the Right blame everything on socialism. White supremacists see evil advancing along racial lines, something that is reciprocated by those who think that only white people can be racist and the plight of non-whites is entirely the fault of white guys, colonial or modern. The arguments on each end blend together depending on the specific subject being addressed (such as arguments in NZ that Pakeha corporate elites or brown dole-bludging treaty troughers are the source of all ruin). In any case, their common bottom line is an absurd reductionism that poses the world in falsely dichotomous, binary terms.

Sadly, people can make a name for themselves by playing the binary simplification game. This is very evident in political blogs and the rhetoric of the ideological extreme. It also is a common tool for politicians of all stripes. The media gravitates to such people because it prefers simple sound bites and one-liners to complex explanations. After all, there is only so much information one can put into a 700 word story or 3 minute video spot. As a result, the practice of binary simplification becomes commonplace and widely accepted as expert commentary or even “truth.”

For a guy who lives in a multivariate universe in which multiple explanations compete for my understanding of what occurs to and around me, it is depressing to think that we are increasingly governed by those who trade in binary simplification and false dichotomies.

Then again, perhaps the beginning of  an explanation for that can itself be posed as a great dichotomy.

 

7 Responses to “False Dichotomies and Binary Simplification.”

  1. awbraae on March 1st, 2013 at 15:22

    Iwi/Kiwi.

  2. George D on March 1st, 2013 at 20:43

    How much information do we need?

    I ask this, because though Australia’s population is not well informed, its elite is considerably better off than NZ’s on account of a deliberate decision to sustain public service media. Having several half-hour or hour-long programs which are properly funded and given reign to investigate topics of interest means that on at least some subjects at least some of the population is at least somewhat informed. It helps. We’re not entirely starved of such programming, but it is limited.

    My question is, how much do we need?

    (I also think that we’re fine to the extent that a neutral public service is able to use an evidence base and make decisions in the public interest. That sustains, most of the time – their purview is wide and the number of politicised issues is limited. The politicisation of the direction of policy is more worrisome.)

  3. Chris Waugh on March 3rd, 2013 at 19:11

    @George D: I’ve ranted about this before elsewhere, but using my own particular obssession as a jumping off point: Given the reliance of the NZ media on the wire services for international coverage and the generally extremely poor quality of reporting on China issues, and the near total absence of coverage of NZ-China issues (either NZ in China or China in NZ), and extrapolating to other issues both international and domestic, I’d answer your question by saying I don’t know how much we need, or how to measure it, but we need a hell of a lot more.

    We could start by copying Australia and every civilised country by rebuilding public service media.

  4. George D on March 3rd, 2013 at 22:33


    Given the reliance of the NZ media on the wire services for international coverage and the generally extremely poor quality of reporting on China issues, and the near total absence of coverage of NZ-China issues (either NZ in China or China in NZ),

    Yes, when the population has no clear ideas about China, and must rest on half-formed stereotypes (whether good or bad), we have a problem. The political and business elite draw from this population, and thus share many of the same views.

    Those who seek information can of course read printed books, but the high cost of print material and the tax distance imposes on Amazon et al reduces the impact of books on our society a little.

  5. amolwan on March 4th, 2013 at 19:45

    Pablo

    The idea is to distill an argument into a series of either/or propositions for the purposes of explanatory clarity. The point is not to see the world in binary fashion, as if all matters of social import can be reduced to good/evil, black/white propositions. Instead, the idea is to break down the logical and epistemological sequence embedded as component parts in any particular argument, particularly those of a normative nature. One can then deduce the overall strength of the case being made based on the logical consistency of those parts.”

    Amolwan says , but Pablo, surely this is what you do. you reduce discussion to political rhetoric, and therefore nothing

  6. Pablo on March 4th, 2013 at 21:32

    Amolwan: Go back to sleep, as you still do not make sense.

  7. stan lee on March 6th, 2013 at 19:26

    What’s depressing is how ubiquitous this is.

    To use a personal example, from one of my social groups you often hear the Dawkins-esque line that “religion is the root of all (or most of) evil”, and that those disagreeing with more progressive social policies must have bigotry at the heart of their opposition. From another, you get the idea that marriage equality is a cynical ploy to “redefine marriage” (which obviously means ruining it), or that all good comes from religious folk – or at least Us.

    That’s not to argue that those accepting such explanations – or the ones you have mentioned earlier – are inherently messed-up, but it does say something of the tendency of all types of people to want black and white answers to complex phenomena.

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