No True Scotsman

I grew up hearing that “no true Christian…” and I got tired of that type of thinking.

One thing I liked about Dennis Prager’s worldview was that he never used this logic.

As soon as I hear someone taking the “No True Scotsman” line, I immediately dismiss them.

From RationalWiki:

The No True Scotsman (NTS) fallacy is a logical fallacy that occurs when:

NTS can be thought of as a form of inverted cherry picking, where: instead of selecting favourable examples, you reject unfavourable ones. Thus, the NTS fallacy, taken to its logical conclusion, paves the path to other logical fallacies, such as letting the “best” member of a group represent it.

Thanks to these remarkable qualities, the NTS fallacy is a vital tool in the promotion of denialism.

The coining of the term is attributed to professor Antony Flew,[5] who gave an example of a Scotsman who in his 1975 book, Thinking About Thinking, wrote;[6]

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”.

Thus, when McDonald is confronted with evidence of another Scotsman doing even worse acts, his response is that “no true Scotsman would do such a thing,” thus disavowing membership in the group “Scotsman” to the criminal on the basis that the commission of the crime is evidence for him not having been a Scotsman in the first place.

This reasoning is clearly fallacious, as there exists no premise in the definition of “Scotsman” which makes such acts impossible (or even unlikely).

Form

P1: All X are Y.
P2: Clearly, not all X are Y.
C1: All true X are Y.
In practice, application of the NTS fallacy is far more subtle than this, but the line of thinking always boils down to a denialistic attitude towards counterexamples.

“”No man can ever be opposed to Christianity who knows what it really is.
—Henry Drummond, the Scopes Trial
With respect to religion, the fallacy is well used, often even overused. Religious apologists will repeatedly try to use NTS to distance themselves from more extreme or fundamentalist groups (and vice versa), but this does not prevent such extremists actually being religious — they themselves would certainly argue otherwise. Moderate Muslim leaders, for example, are well known for declaring Islamic extremists as “not true Muslims” as Islam is a “Religion of Peace.”
Similarly, moderate Christians, such as those in Europe, are sometimes aghast when viewing their fundamentalist counterparts in the US, immediately declaring them “not true Christians,” even though they believe in the same God and get their belief system from the same book. Many of these statements stating that the extremists are not true believers are often used as a reaction against Guilt by Association. The NTS fallacy likewise occurs when believers attribute any and all good fortune to divine intervention on their behalf, yet insist that the same can never be true when things go awry.
The NTS fallacy can also run the other way when it comes to extremism. Extremists will make a religious statement and when someone points out that there are many believers who don’t believe the extremist’s viewpoint, the moderates are deemed to be not true believers (i.e., Christians who support gay marriage are not “real Christians” or Muslims who support women’s rights are not “real Muslims”).

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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