The no true Scotsman fallacy occurs when an argument defines a category in one way but later refines that definition, specifically for the purpose of excluding counterexamples. This tactic is used in response to evidence that directly contradicts a broad generalization.
No true Scotsman arguments allow the speaker to dismiss any evidence that conflicts with their views without honestly confronting new or conflicting information.
What is the no true Scotsman fallacy?
The no true Scotsman fallacy is an error that occurs when someone attempts to protect a universal claim from counterexamples by changing the criteria of the claim in an ad hoc fashion. It typically involves dismissing evidence or examples that would invalidate the claim by arbitrarily redefining terms to exclude them.
This fallacy makes a debate unproductive, preventing any real counterargument from taking hold by shifting the goalposts. The no true Scotsman strategy changes the focus of a discussion from the evidence at hand to the definition of terms, often involving subjective or unfalsifiable criteria.
No true Scotsman arguments are often used in discussions of cultural, political, philosophical, or religious groups. To defend the integrity of the group, an individual may discount all examples of group members who defy their generalizations.
Rather than revising their position in light of new evidence, the person making the argument dismisses the evidence by claiming it doesn’t apply to a “true” or “pure” example of the category in question.
The fallacy is often explained through the argument, “No Scotsman puts sugar in his porridge.” When presented with a counterexample, a Scotsman who does sweeten his porridge, the original speaker replies, “Well, no true Scotsman would do that.” This response exemplifies the fallacy by arbitrarily narrowing the category of “Scotsman” to exclude the counterexample, avoiding the need to address the contradiction directly.
The no true Scotsman fallacy is part of a broader category known as informal logical fallacies, which involve faulty reasoning in argumentation rather than structural flaws in the argument’s form.
Similar fallacies include moving the goalposts (changing the criteria of success or truth once they have been met or observed), ad hoc rescue (introducing a makeshift explanation to save a theory from refutation without proper testing), and special pleading (applying rules or criteria to others while exempting oneself without a valid reason).
How does the no true Scotsman fallacy work?
The no true Scotsman fallacy is used to defend a generalization by discounting evidence that contradicts it. The generalization is typically a category definition that makes an overly broad claim. When exceptions are presented, the definition of the category is altered to exclude the exceptions.
- A claim is made attributing a trait to a whole category (e.g., “All Riverside students are good at math”).
- An exception is identified (e.g., “Here’s a Riverside student who struggles with math”).
- The original claim is then modified to exclude this exception, often by redefining the category in a more exclusive way (e.g., “All dedicated Riverside students are good at math”).
No true Scotsman fallacies shift the parameters of a group definition to dismiss exceptions, artificially maintaining the accuracy of a generalization.
Why does no true Scotsman fallacy occur?
The no true Scotsman fallacy serves several distinct purposes related to cognitive biases:
- Protecting group identity: safeguarding the perceived integrity, cohesion, or superiority of a collective by disavowing members who fail to conform to strict criteria (related to in-group bias)
- Preserving beliefs: protecting ideological commitments or generalizations despite counterexamples (related to confirmation bias)
- Easing cognitive load: avoiding the mental burden of evaluating new or contradictory evidence (related to cognitive dissonance)
Example of no true Scotsman fallacy
The no true Scotsman fallacy allows people to create a separation between themselves and someone they disagree with who shares a group affiliation.
In addition to preserving the purity of a group, no true Scotsman fallacies can also be used to preserve an idealized vision of a philosophy. Rather than acknowledging imperfections, people sometimes insist on rejecting any representative of a given ideological movement who doesn’t match a certain claim.
Frequently asked questions about no true scotsman fallacy
Is no true Scotsman always a fallacy?
The no true Scotsman fallacy is inherently fallacious when used to arbitrarily dismiss counterexamples that disprove a general claim. However, arguments that look similar at a glance aren’t always fallacious. The soundness or fallaciousness of the argument depends on the nature of the claim and the definitions involved.
If a claim is made about a category based on well-defined, objective, and agreed-upon criteria, then refining a definition to exclude a counterexample that doesn’t meet those criteria typically isn’t considered fallacious.
Why is no true Scotsman a fallacy?
No true Scotsman arguments are fallacious because they arbitrarily redefine criteria to exclude counterexamples rather than addressing the substance of counterarguments. This technique allows one to avoid engaging with evidence in an intellectually dishonest manner, rendering the debate useless.
What is the appeal to purity fallacy?
The appeal to purity fallacy and the no true Scotsman fallacy are closely related, but the appeal to purity fallacy is broader:
- Appeal to purity fallacies dismiss deviations from an idealized form, rejecting any variation or nuance within a belief system or identity.
- No true Scotsman fallacies are a type of appeal to purity that involves dismissing counterexamples to defend a specific claim.