Have you stopped beating your wife yet?

matthew's picture

Periodically, in discussions with friends or online associates, I run across what I call "Have you stopped beating your wife yet?" questions. These are questions which are phrased as a yes/no, or either/or proposition, yet that proposition doesn't apply since the assumption underlying the question isn't necessarily correct.

Often, this is called ignoring the "excluded middle principle", or a "false dilemma". In the classic example of an excluded middle, you can take the proposition, "Joe is bald", reverse it, and end up with "Joe is bald, or Joe is not bald". A true statement.

Yet often, we misuse it. Some examples I pulled from the Wikipedia:

  • Either you go to college, or you will wind up flipping hamburgers for a living.
  • You are either with us, or you are with the terrorists.
  • Either creationism is true, or evolution is true. Therefore, if it is shown that evolution is false, creationism must be true. (or the inverse: if it is shown that creationism is false, evolution must be true...)
  • There are two kinds of people in the world...

I hear it from the radio every day. It's the heart of strong demagoguery, and a way to really rile people up against the threatening hordes of vile "not-us" people. I hear it from the right and the left though, admittedly, far more from the right than the left. Maybe it's just an artifact of established right-wing radio.

Nevertheless, it bugs me. 50% of the U.S. does not read more than 1500 words in a given week. How can you appeal to logic adequately and try to frame a question in terms that actually make logical sense, yet not look weak compared to the guy that's good at presenting nice sound-bite-sized logical fallacies for the non-reading public?

They may not read, but the non-readers listen, watch, and vote.

What other false dilemmas do you encounter regularly?

Matthew P. Barnson
- - - -
Thought for the moment:
The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them,
but to be indifferent to them; that's the essence of inhumanity.
-- G.B. Shaw


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Troylus's picture

False Dichotomies

First off, in my never-ending zeal to drag topics off track, I have to ask where your statistic of "50% read less than 1500 words per week" came from. If true, that is scary.

Anyway, I think the persuasive nature of false dichotomies as a polemic device probably arises out of our natural proclivity to categorize. We make sense of the world by placing things under mental headings. Anytime an argument can do this, it appeals to us. The argument doesn't even really have to make much sense as the categorization process is so intrinsic to our thinking processes. We naturally feel like we have a better handle on things simply if there is a mechanism by which we can sort them.

For example, if I make up some nonsense words: Gloob, Mikinak, Gleefer, Dropath, Paltornmo, Affrangus. etc You initially approach them neutrally as a bunch of empty-meaning syllables.

Now, if I tell you that the "Gloob" and the "Gleefer" are alien races from the "Glarnoff System", you'll say "OK, fine. That's interesting. Whatever."

Then I ask you, "What do you think the other words mean?" (Go on, guess!)

I bet that you'd have a strong tendency to guess that they are also alien races and probably from systems other than the Glarnoff System. But you have no information to go on other than their inclusion among the original grouping of nonsense words. You automatically look for contrasts and meaning admist the chaos and assume that the other words by their mere proximity must be somehow related. Furthermore, because they don't have that initial "Gl" sound and they weren't mentioned in my initial bit of information, you assume that they should be excluded in some other fashion.

So, you get one bit of information and your brain's categorizing apparatus kicks into gear to divide up the rest. The result is two quick assumptions: one that is inclusive (the other words are probably the names of alien races too) and one that is exclusive (but from a different system).

(There's nothing particularly tricky about this illustration. Many IQ tests throw weird things together and then test you on how good you are at assuming categories and relationships based upon the scantest of information. Apparently someone thinks that the ability to see patterns and assume underlying categories when genuine information is sorely lacking somehow indicates intelligence. Go figure!)

One of my favorite false dichotomies (actually a false tri-chotomy) is C.S. Lewis's famous argument regarding the alleged divinity of Jesus. That based upon Jesus own words we are left with only three possibilities of explaining who he was: either a Liar, a Lunatic, or the Lord.

Alas, even as compelling as this argument seems to many (it even alliterates further stoking the rhetorical fires!), it also rests completely upon an unspoken assumption.

I leave it to the curious to decipher what that assumption is.

Ben's picture


--One of my favorite false dichotomies (actually a false tri-chotomy) is C.S. Lewis's famous argument regarding the alleged divinity of Jesus. That based upon Jesus own words we are left with only three possibilities of explaining who he was: either a Liar, a Lunatic, or the Lord.

Alas, even as compelling as this argument seems to many (it even alliterates further stoking the rhetorical fires!), it also rests completely upon an unspoken assumption.

I leave it to the curious to decipher what that assumption is.--

Oooh sounds like a challenge. ;)

Well, first off, I'd say that the biggest hole *I* see in that argument is that we don't in fact have *any* of Jesus' "own words", but rather words attributed to him in documents that were written 50-100 years after his death, which could be accurate or could just as easily be exaggerated or entirely fabricated.

Additionally, even if we assumed that he did indeed say all that stuff, it's possible that he was simply deluded. Just another Jewish boy whose mother thought he was God. ;)



matthew's picture

Statistics on literacy

I have to ask where your statistic of "50% read less than 1500 words per week" came from...

I'm having trouble locating the exact reference this morning (I ran across it last week, if I recall correctly, in a paper regarding world literacy rates), so here are some literary and reading statistics in that vein...

  • 21 to 23 percent of US adults are illiterate or functionally illiterate (receiving a "1" score in a literacy test grading from 1 to 5
  • 25 to 28 percent of US adults are just barely above functional illiteracy, receiving a "2"
  • Across the literacy scales, 66 to 75 percent of the adults in the lowest level and 93 to 97 percent in the second lowest level described themselves as being able to read or write English "well" or "very well." They don't know they are incompetent.
  • 30% of survey participants were level 3
  • Only 18 to 21 percent of adults scored in the two most literate categories (4 and 5).
  • I'm conflating some things here, but if you're a foreign-born Hispanic, native-born Black or Native American/Alaskan, you're most at risk of being functionally illiterate. However, across ethnic lines, if you don't graduate from high school, you're at highest risk.

Unfortunately, despite long, frantic seconds of searching, I can't locate where I got that particular statistic from. It may be an urban legend. However, from the survey above, we can establish that about a quarter of the US adult population is illiterate or functioally illiterate, and roughly another quarter is operating at minimum literacy levels.

The point still applies, even if the "1500 words per week" turns out to be a complete WAG :)

Other supporting documentation:

  • 6 out of 10 households do not purchase even one book per year
  • 10% of the US cannot read or write at all.
  • 44% of Americans do not read even a single book in a year.
  • This one says 18% are functionally illiterate, in addition to the completely illiterate (so 28% of the US is incapable of reading and comprehending even on a minimally proficient level)

Admittedly, the statistics cited by this paper are without attribution. Additionally, most studies appear to be "pre-Internet-age", and my hope and suspicion is that the Internet will be the greatest boon to literacy the US has ever seen.

The amazing thing as I was looking this up is that the US, on the other hand, buys a lot of books per year. 9 books purchased for every man, woman, and child in the nation.

Matthew P. Barnson

Matthew P. Barnson

Troylus's picture


The assumption in the Liar, Lunatic, or Lord argument is that the biblical account found in the Gospels is an accurate portrayal of the words of Jesus.

There are good reasons to question this assumption. Among them are the dozens of alternate and apocryphal Gospels not included in the New Testament that has Jesus saying lots of other things.

weed's picture

To answer the question...


I haven't stopped beating her yet. I beat her up all the time. This morning, I beat her up by 3 hours :)

My $.02

My $.02

Ben's picture


Do I win a prize?

For an indepth study of exactly who is believed to have written parts of the Bible and when, there's an excellent and unbiased essay in The Straight Dope.

(Off topic, I know, but it's an interesting subject) :)



Timpane's picture


I'm abstaining to let the dust settle with Troylus, my very worthy adversary in the whole God post.

that and because its very late and I'm very tired.

So.. here's something that has nothing to do with it..
I have found the true force in the universe.


NVZ: NINJAS VS ZOMBIES - THE MOVIE - www.nvzmovie.com

In that particular argument

In that particular argument the assumption is that Jesus, in fact, existed. This is so, simply because if Jesus didn't exist the argument is destroyed.

matthew's picture

I'd call that...

Right, I'd call that yet another hole in addition to the possibility the sayings attributed to the historical Jesus were not, in fact, what he said.

Matthew P. Barnson

Matthew P. Barnson

daniel's picture

Name that fallacy!

I thought "have you stopped beating your wife?" was an example of begging the question, not a false dichotomy. (Hitting her a little on the heiny isn't beating her?) Of course, no one in America seems to know what "begging the question" seems to mean anymore, so using it correctly probably just sows further confusion in a debate. I just bite my tongue every time I hear it abused, often by extremely intelligent and educated people. When did Americans become so confused? (Heh, heh--couldn't resist a final "beg.")

matthew's picture

Begging the question

I would tend to agree that it's more begging the question... but people seem to always misunderstand what begging the question is. It's so commonly -- and incorrectly -- used, that like "ironic" the mistaken usage really seems to be more commonly-understood than the correct usage.

However, I stand by my analysis that it is also a false dichotomy; one need not choose from the suggested responses, as a third answer which some would say is ducking the question is actually the correct one: "I do not and never have beaten my wife."

Matthew P. Barnson

Matthew P. Barnson

rowan's picture

Just musing...

We should start a thread devoted solely to the definitions of philosophical terms and phrases, as it occurs to me I'm more than a little rusty on them.

ie What exactly IS "begging the question," a "strawman," "post hoc ergo propter hoc," etc.?

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daniel's picture


Strawmen, strawmen everywhere, and not a one to beat!

Hearing people refer to a "draft" as a "strawman" is even more infuriating than "begging the question.". Well, maybe not.

Because I am temporarily physically constrained, I will answer the question, but Matt or someone could probably provide a link to a complete logical fallacy reference guide.

Strawmen are artificial counter-arguments, proposed for easy defeat, such as "My opponent believes that the rich shouldn't pay taxes. Let me tell you about the problems with that approach." They are not rough drafts.

Begging the question presumes an antecedent that may not be universally accepted, such as "What do you plan to do about these egrigious tax rates?" It is not something that "leads to a question." An evil rhetorical device if there ever was one.

Post hoc assumes causality from temporal relationships. "Ever since Bush took office, my car has had mechanical problems...stupid Bush!"

Sammy G's picture

Surely You Don't Mean...

Daniel, when you mention logical fallacies, surely you are not referring to...



matthew's picture


Matt or someone could probably provide a link to a complete logical fallacy reference guide.

I know I've linked it here before, but here you go:


As Timpane has astutely pointed out before, memorizing a list of logical fallacies and picking someone's argument apart due to the fallacies they used is a fairly simple exercise. What is more rewarding is paying enough attention to build a logical argument in the first place, or building logical arguments which refute the fallacies. Even better is to do so in a way that doesn't call attention to the fallacious arguments (so the arguer doesn't feel insulted), but invites further discussion within logical bounds. I'm still working on that skill, and have obviously not mastered it yet.

Matthew P. Barnson

Matthew P. Barnson

matthew's picture

Wow, huge...

Wow, that was a huge thread. I forgot how we took it all so seriously :) These days, I'm like, "Meh, I'm done, if your opinion hasn't changed much let's just have a farting contest."

Matthew P. Barnson

Matthew P. Barnson