“Yes, Yes. I know that none of the countries that tried out communism succeeded. But the reason is not the fault of communism but the fact that none of those countries actually had REAL communism. That was the reason for their downfall.”
– Almost any random commie
If you engage in debates on political topics as much as I do, I am quite sure that you have come across people that claim as above about their convictions. This is not restricted to political ideologies. It is also quite common as a defense of the supposed peaceful stance of the so-called silent majority in the case of religion based crimes. Surely you have seen common citizens and pundits flock to all sorts of media sources immediately after a religion based crime or a terrorist attack to decidedly point out that the individual(s) who committed the crimes in the name of their religion are not representative of their religion because majority of the followers of whatever that religion is, are peaceful and because if the criminals (/terrorists) were actually following the religion they claim to follow, then they never would have committed this crime/terrorist act . This second part of the argument shown in bold here is what is relevant to the topic of this blog post. It is worthy to note that the No True Scotsman Fallacy is used the other way as well. For example, a fundamentalist would claim that his/her religion is against some issue such as gay marriage or abortion. Then one can point out that there are others, who claim to follow the same religion, who are neutral or supportive of these issues. Hearing that, the fundamentalist would counter this by claiming that the said people are “not true Christians” or “not true Muslims” or whatever the religion that the fundamentalist is affiliated with.
Before going into the analysis of the fallacy, let us look at how it got this interesting name. In fact, that origin story itself can be used by you as an example to better understand this fallacy. This fallacy was first properly identified by the British philosopher Antony Flew. In his book, Thinking About Thinking (1975) he gave the following example [1, 4].
Imagine Hamish McDonald, a Scotsman, sitting down with his Glasgow Morning Herald and seeing an article about how the “Brighton Sex Maniac Strikes Again”. Hamish is shocked and declares that “No Scotsman would do such a thing.” The next day he sits down to read his Glasgow Morning Herald again; and, this time, finds an article about an Aberdeen man whose brutal actions make the Brighton sex maniac seem almost gentlemanly. This fact shows that Hamish was wrong in his opinion, but is he going to admit this? Not likely. This time he says: “No true Scotsman would do such a thing.”
Please note that this idea was foreshadowed in his earlier work, An Introduction to Western Philosophy (1971). Thus some people take that as the origin point of the name of this fallacy .
A yet another example with Scotsmen is given by the Philosophy professor Bradly Dowden. One person claims that “No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge“. To which another replies with something like “But my uncle Angus, who is a true blooded Scotsman, likes sugar with his porridge“. Only to get the reply “Ah yes, but no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge” from the first person [1, 2, 3, 5]. Professor Dowden further explains the phenomenon as an “ad hoc rescue” of a refuted generalization attempt .
In essence, this fallacy can be defined as an appeal to purity to dismiss any criticisms or flaws that others find in your argument . This also is a subsection of the shifting the goal post fallacy. (As usual here is my hope and promise that I will cover that fallacy in a future blog post.) The manner in which the shifting of the goalpost is applied here is as follows; as soon as compelling evidence is provided to disprove Bob’s claim, Bob changes the definition of his claim to a more “pure” level saying that it is true that the evidence that has been put forward disproves his previous claims and examples, but these evidence would not have an impact on this new, pure, and true example. Like in all shifting the goal post fallacies, this is a post-rationalization to get rid of supposedly “previously valid” criticisms against one’s argument.
In a more formal definition, one can state that the No True Scotsman Fallacy is a result of an attempt to protect and redefine a previous universal generalization in the face of counterexamples by a definition shift in an ad hoc manner to exclude the provided counter example(s). An interesting point here is that the claimant does not try to reject the counterexample. S/he just attempts to discredit the said counter example by shifting the definition of his/her original claim but not rejecting that claim altogether.
One can also find kinship of this fallacy to the “begging the question fallacy” (yup, added to the list) given that the other party is expected to accept the definition to “True Scotsman” along with the claim “would not do X“. Further, this is a good example of confirmation bias (which is an interesting topic by itself). The person who is guilty of this fallacy would deny what he/she is doing to be a change of definition. Instead, he/she will claim that this is merely making the standard to accept a counter-argument more rigorous .
Robert Allen names this fallacy as “Victory by Definition” in his book The Propaganda Game. On that matter; in the political domain, how western media and political scientists define democracy is a classic case of this fallacy. This is due to the original belief that “a democracy never starts a war“. Each time a counter example is provided for this, they draw a distinction between “mature democracies” and “emerging democracies” . In fact this is not only limited to the idea of starting wars or not. Each time a fault of the democratic system is pointed out, the answer is “it is not a matured democracy yet“. Fundamentally, this is the exploitation of the No True Scotsman Fallacy as much as it was the case with the communists mentioned in the beginning of this article.
No true Scotsman Fallacy can be considered the inverted form of the cherry picking fallacy which will also be discussed in a later post. In cherry picking you select favourable examples. In No true Scotsman you reject unfavourable examples by means of retroactive disqualification .
What is a rule without exceptions? The definition of group is fuzzy. Therefore the definition of No True Scotsman Fallacy also becomes fuzzy. This begets some exceptions.
The Well-defined Scotsman
Now this may sound strange given that in the previous paragraph I mentioned that the group definitions are fuzzy. But consider the examples, “No honest man would lie“, “No theist can be an atheist” .
One might point out that the definitions of “honest man” or “atheist” are going to be fuzzy. Is an honest man a person that has never lied? Or is he one that only says white lies? Is an atheist a person that is categorized under 7 in the Spectrum of theistic probability? Or are people that are categorized under 5 and 6 also considered atheists? All these are very valid questions. But fundamentally moot in this specific scenario. That is because whatever will be the definition you pick for an “honest man“, a “lie” will be something he would not say given that the “lie” is also defined under the same definition. Similarly whatever the definition you pick for an “atheist“, a “theist” would be something s/he is not under the same definition. In this case it does not matter that an “atheist” in one definition is a “slightly theist” in another. All that matter is the fact that under the definition that you declare one to be an “atheist“, s/he is not a “theist“. Thus “No theist can be an atheist” universally holds regardless of where you draw the line.
The No True Scotsman Fallacy does not place any restriction on whether a given definition is sensible or not. It is only concerned about whether or not the given definition is applied consistently or not . I can safely claim “All true unicorns have one horn“. It does not matter that the animal unicorn is mythical. It only matters that my statement is consistent with the definition of a unicorn.