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Logical fallacies and the environment: either-or

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eitherAs instructors we’re supposed to instill in our students critical thinking abilities. So this semester I included in my Environmental Issues class a review of some common logical fallacies with examples taken from the environmental scene. Much to my surprise, I couldn’t find such a collection through a Google search. So I started crafting my own by collecting examples of logical fallacies that occur in environmental news and discussions. This week: the either-or fallacy (aka false dilemma or false dichotomy).

“Either you’re with us, or you’re against us!” – a basic battle cry that relies on loyalty, leaving no room for neutrality. But often the logic underlying this is faulty.

Here’s a most absurd example:
Decide: 1 + 1 = 4, or 1 + 1 = 3. We all know that one plus one cannot equal four. So the answer has to be one plus one equal three. What causes the fallacy is limiting the choices; an option of selecting “1+1=2” would have been nice…

This is commonly seen in environmental debates. For instance, Matthew Chapman recounts a situation in New York where two neighbourhoods are pitted against one another as the city is deciding where to put a new garbage processing facility.

Mr E and Ms K from Brooklyn are outraged because they are afraid their kids’ health is being damaged by too many garbage trucks driving through their neighborhoods. They have every reason to be afraid and outraged. [But] people next to the 91st Street garbage site believe the health of their children will be damaged by the new proposed dump, and their fear and their outrage is equally genuine and justified.

And we’ve all been scammed. We’ve all been sold a “logical fallacy”. EITHER E and K in Brooklyn get what they want OR the residents of Yorkville get what they want. EITHER pollution is reduced in one neighborhood OR it is reduced in another. Nobody deserves to live in close proximity to garbage. Nobody deserves to have their kids’ lungs baked with diesel fumes or, even worse, to see them get run down by garbage trucks. Nobody needs to be involved in such a choice or have to fight about it. In a city this rich, why are we even contemplating the idea that only one of us deserves protection?!

In fact, what should have been part of the debate, to avoid the either-or trap, is a discussion whether other sites could be considered (in industrial zones, for instance), or whether an effective recycling program would alleviate the need for a facility altogether. But such false-dilemma approaches are often part of a divide-and-conquer tactic. Pipeline politics (either it runs through your neighbourhood, or theirs) are a common instance; choices for transporting oil (either it’s a pipeline, or it’s by train) is another. (To say nothing of “either you agree with having the pipeline go through, or you’re a traitor to Canada.)

Sometimes the either-or logic does hold, however; consider the following
• The maximum allowable level of nitrate in drinking water is 10 milligrams per liter
• This sample of tap water has a nitrate level of 15 milligrams per litre
• Therefore, the tap water is above the allowable level
This is true because there is a clear defining line: the situation has only one characteristic under consideration (the nitrate level) and there is a single criteria for decision (below or above 10 mg/l). But it does not automatically follow that the tap water in this case is polluted – this would need a careful definition of pollution. For instance, if the nitrate levels are naturally high, the water may be above the drinking limit without being polluted, if pollution is defined as a contamination from human activities.

A few more examples to ponder:
• If you’re in favour of the bike path, you’re anti-cars!
• If you’re pro-logging, you’re against the environment.
• You can protect the environment, or you can protect employment, but you can’t do both.
• You give money to animal charities? You must hate people!
• You’re making a speech against the oil industry, but you took a plane to the conference. How hypocritical!

Two key problems with either-or is that it promotes black or white thinking, leaving no room for nuance or shades of grey; and it closes the door to unexamined alternatives.
As an aside: I must have been mulling these concepts for a while. While doing a google search (either or fallacy environmental), I found an old post of mine I wrote five years ago, Harvey Enchin is a big fat moron. Here’s an excerpt:

Either-or fallacy: this one has been dogging the environmental movement ever since its birth, so that it has become a cliché: either you are for the environment, or you are for the economy (and jobs). At times it has pitted trade unions against enviros, as during the War in the Woods in the 1980s Clayoquot sound in BC. Other times it has been repeated as a rationale for pushing destructive projects, in a loggers-versus-owls fashion: loggers need to make a living, so damn the owls. The reality, of course, has always been far more complex; a careful reading of the events during the War in the Woods era, for instance, shows that enviros were pushing against the logging of old growth areas, true, but also for processing raw logs in BC instead of exporting them, so as to create more forestry jobs. Developing ecotourism and protecting fish habitat (to save fishing jobs) was also prominent in their argument, to say nothing of sustainable forestry a la Merve Wilkinson. Again the corporate interests have been successful at framing the issue, much to the expense of BC’s environment – AND economy.

Not just an either-or, but I can't resist Dilbert

Not just an either-or, but I can’t resist Dilbert

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Written by enviropaul

February 22, 2016 at 10:01 am

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  1. […] logical fallacies that occur in environmental news and discussions.  Previous posts in the series: either-or; ad […]


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