The False Choice vs. The Strawman


The other night, I saw a commercial on TV claiming that their product could stop the balding process and enable you to start growing your original hair back.

The commercial was not any different from the hundreds of other ads peddling hair products for men.  I attempt to ignore most commercials when they come on.  But there was a certain line in the commercial that caught my attention.  They asked:  “Do you want to have a full, healthy head of hair when you grow old or do you want to lose it all, just to be a bald, old man?”

Now, come on.  What kind of question was that?  Who would ever pick the latter option?  Obviously, no one would.  So, why did the advertisers choose to ask it?  I asked myself the same question again, but in a different context:  What kind of question was that?  Was it a false choice, was it a strawman or something else entirely?

A false choice (otherwise known as a false dichotomy, false dilemma, either-or fallacy, etc.) is a logical fallacy where two options are presented to someone as the only two available options to choose from, when there may be other alternatives.  People use this type of argument all the time.  You have to find a regular 9 to 5 job or you are going to be homeless.  Pick either Democrat or Republican.  Grow old bald or use our product for a healthy head of hair.

A strawman fallacy occurs when someone argues against something by misrepresenting it.  Usually, the misrepresentation is done through exaggeration or by taking points out of context.  For example, a child is attempting to convince his father that their family needs a dog.  The father says that he does not want one and that they are too much work.  The child says that the dog could protect the family.  The father says no.  The child then asks the father why he wants to leave the family unprotected.  That last part of the argument is the strawman.  The child misrepresents his father’s argument for not getting a dog by saying it is because he wants the family to be unprotected.  This is, obviously, a weak argument that can be easily torn down.  Growing into being just a bald, old man is a strawman.

So, it looks like that line in the commercial is guilty of using both of those logical fallacies.  Presenting the options of either using the product or just being a bald, old man is a false choice.  There are plenty of other options.  One of which is being perfectly happy with your life regardless of how much hair is on the top of your head.  That is where the strawman comes in.  Presenting the balding process in such a bad context misrepresents the natural process of getting older.  It is not necessarily all that bad.

It is very common to be in situations where you are being persuaded to believe something.  Recognizing what tricks people are using (whether they know that they are doing it or not) is the first step in fully understanding the situation that you are in.  You could dismiss the stance that the person is taking because of their use of a logical fallacy.  Or you could choose to go along with what the person is saying and just accept that they are using a poor method of argumentation.  If you are able to recognize these irrational methods of thinking, you can spend less time being distracted by people just trying to win an argument and spend more time in deciding what you truly believe in.

Photo courtesy of eflon

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