No True Scotsman Fallacy | Examples & Definition

Reasoning updated on  May 30, 2024 5 min read

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.

Example of no true Scotsman fallacy
Person A: No vegan would want to eat imitation meat.

Person B: I’m vegan, and I like eating imitation meat because it allows me to enjoy my favorite foods without harming animals.

Person A: Then you’re not a true vegan. A real vegan wouldn’t even want to remember the taste of meat.

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)

Note
Arguments that superficially resemble the no true Scotsman fallacy aren’t always fallacious. Clarifying a category definition is acceptable if this adjustment is rooted in established, objective criteria. Revising a definition in light of new evidence or counterexamples typically isn’t considered fallacious.

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.

No true Scotsman fallacy example in real life
Person A: Republicans always support lower taxes and limited government.

Person B: But some Republicans have advocated for increasing the Pentagon’s budget.

Person A: Those individuals are Republican in name only, not true Republicans. True Republicans always prioritize fiscal conservatism.

The no true Scotsman fallacy can be seen in the concept of "Republicans in name only," typically referred to as RINOs. Rather than admitting that variation exists within a group, some exclude those who defy a certain generalization.

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.

No true Scotsman fallacy example
Speaker 1: The Enlightenment represented the epitome of reason and progress.

Speaker 2: I disagree. Some Enlightenment thinkers justified colonialism and racial hierarchies.

Speaker 1: Those individuals were not truly representative of the movement; the Enlightenment was ultimately about equality and human rights.

In this example, Speaker 1 commits the no true Scotsman fallacy by disavowing Enlightenment thinkers who held prejudiced views to preserve a positive image of the movement. Acknowledging complexity allows us to appreciate a writer’s or movement’s positive contributions while recognizing their flaws.

Do you want to know more about common mistakes, commonly confused words, or other language topics? Check out some of our other language articles full of examples and quizzes.


Rhetoric

Commonly confused words

Fallacies

Symbolism

Possum vs opossum

Straw man fallacy

Play on words

Weather vs whether

Post hoc fallacy

Juxtaposition

Inter vs intra

Fallacy of composition

Paronomasia

To vs too

Tu quoque fallacy

Allusion

Subjective vs objective

Either-or fallacy


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.




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Magedah Shabo

Magedah is an author, editor, and educator who has empowered thousands of students to become better writers.

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