No True Scotsman

Satirical caricature of European women curious...

ca. 1815 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Following on from my last blog in which I outlined the fallacy of the Chewbacca defence, I thought it best to write a little more about argumentation and the myriad fallacies that one might employ in an effort to obstruct debate or force opinion.

It is important to highlight these here as the sheer domination of fallacious reasoning within the media has led to us becoming quite blind to it’s subtlety. Besides, we are constantly reminded by the ‘No’ campaign to be wary of our hearts and vote with our heads so it is only right that I provide a little insight into dark art of dialectics.

There are two types of logical fallacy. Formal and Informal.

Formal fallacies are those arguments that can be shown to be invalid simply by looking at the structure of the argument itself. An example might go something like this. Some x are y. Some y are z. Therefore some x are z. To make sense of this, consider the following statements.

Some Tories are scoundrels.

Some scoundrels are Liberals.

Therefore, some Tories are Liberals.

Now, in this case, that actually makes a lot of sense. The invalidity of the argument is only made apparent by substituting the content of the argument. The following statements follow the same structure.

Some Tories are politicians (nae sniggering)

Some politicians want what is best for Scotland

Therefore, some Tories want what is best for Scotland.

Without changing the structure of the argument, we can immediately see, by simply changing the content of the argument that the proposition is entirely redundant.

In fairness, I have been unable to find an example of a formal fallacy from the Bitter Together group however this may be attributable to the prevalence of informal fallacies which are generally more successful and in turn, considerably more interesting.

An informal fallacy might not break any rules of propositional calculus but is ultimately as redundant in that it demonstrates an obvious disconnect between it’s premises and  conclusions.

There are countless examples, far too many to go into in the context of a blog that is unable to restrain itself at the best of times to anything like the generally accepted best practice of 800 words or less. I will start with a couple of the more well known models, both used with startling alacrity by the naysayers.

Most readers will be familiar with the non sequitur, whereby it is claimed B follows A when quite simply it does not. Almost as familiar is the argumentum ad nauseum fallacy which is predicated upon repeating the same shite over and over until everyone becomes so violently ill that they tacitly accede to your point of view, better illustrated by the genius of Lewis Carroll.

“Just the place for a Snark!” the Bellman cried,
As he landed his crew with care;
Supporting each man on the top of the tide
By a finger entwined in his hair.

“Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice:
That alone should encourage the crew.
Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:
What I tell you three times is true.”

Lewis Carroll, The Hunting of the Snark

To run through just a few more of the fallacies noted on the ‘Bitter Together’ website… (deep breath)

Argument by assertion (belief that repeating an illogical statement enough times will make you right eventually), argumentum ex culo (lying, pure and simple), Red herrings (bringing up irrelevant points in an effort to distract people from the truth, Kim Jong-un anyone?), Straw men (distorting your opponents position to gain greater rhetorical leverage), argumentum ad hominem (attacking your opponent instead of the ideas he is talking about), Poisoning the well (the refutation of an argument by placing doubt on the credibility of the opponent), Argument from ignorance (arguing the case for something based only on your own satisfaction of it’s tenets), Appeal to tradition (basing an argument on it’s long standing-ness), Composition and Division (unable to distinguish between what is true of a part and what is true of a whole), Spotlight fallacy (highlighting specific aspects of a small minority and attributing those aspects to the group as a whole), False dilemma (attempting to convince your audience that only two possibilities exist), My enemy’s enemy (jumping into bed with a loathed enemy based on nothing more than a mutual hatred of another), argumentum ad consequentiam (arguing that negatively perceived outcomes reduce the veracity of the proposition), argumentum ad Baculum (intimidation – if Scotland believes ‘Yes’, Europe will punish you, therefore ‘Yes’ is wrong) Slippery Slope (if A happens then we’ll all be plunged into darkness… no, of course we won’t. That’s the point)

There is another fallacy however that is rather more relevant when viewed in the context of our current debate. It is the informal fallacy known as the ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy.

The No True Scotsman fallacy is an attempt by an individual to distance himself from an act of terrible unpleasantness (such as expressing pride in one’s nation) by redefining the group to which he belongs to exclude the source of the unpleasantness.

The term was first coined by Anthony Flew and the story goes something along the lines of the following.

A Scotsman is sitting reading his copy of The P&J (all copies of The Northern Scot were already sold out, Ian) and is struck by an article regarding a series of violent sex crimes in Brighton. He is appalled by the nature of the crimes and proudly exclaims, ‘No Scotsman would do such a thing!’ In the following pages however, his attention is drawn to a similar story of depravity occurring on the streets of Aberdeen. Unwilling to admit his error he throws down his paper in disgust claiming, ‘No True Scotsman would do such a thing!’

Four people in a variety of highland dress

They may look Scottish but these four have yet to declare voting intentions for next year’s referendum. Until they do…                     (Photo credit: State Library of Queensland, Australia)

This cunning piece of fallacious reasoning nonchalantly substitutes being born in Scotland with having views that are congruent with his own.

Imagine my horror then when I recently gave in to temptation and had a gander at the ‘Bitter Together’ website. There, in all it’s glory, is a page entitled, ‘realscotstogether‘.

Real Scots?

As opposed to imagined or supposed, I presume?

Actually existing Scots? There are not too many definitions of the word ‘real’. I assume the Scots to whom they refer do not advocate the leaving of both Sterling and Euro in favour of the Brazilian monetary unit or comprise Europe’s most northerly group of Los Blancos supporters. I need my dictionary. Perhaps I missed something.


 [ree-uhl, reel]  

1. true; not merely ostensible, nominal, or apparent:
2. existing or occurring as fact; actual rather than imaginary, ideal, or fictitious:
3. being an actual thing; having objective existence; not imaginary:
4. being actually such; not merely so-called: a real victory.
5. genuine; not counterfeit, artificial, or imitation; authentic: a real antique; a real diamond; a real Scotsman

Nope. There it is. These are real Scots. True Scots. Immediately below on the page they even remind us that they are proud Scots. The ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy is not only alive and well but openly championed by Bitter Together in an attempt to undermine those of us who dare to imagine for ourselves a country of our own making, in our own image.

How very unScottish of us.

The last word goes to the great Bertrand Russell,

Logical errors are, I think, of greater practical importance than many people believe; they enable their perpetrators to hold the comfortable opinion on every subject in turn.

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