Tuesday, 19 August 2008

The fallacy of binary thinking

Binary thinking has become my newest pet peeve. No, wait! Don't run away. It's not as eggheady as it sounds.

Binary thinking is the kind of thinking that says: "If you aren't A, then you are B. End of discussion." Or: "If you don't do A, then you must do B. End of discussion."

It raises its ugly head all over the place, but most especially in politics. It is the thinking of division, of facile labels. It is highly effective for pressuring or bullying someone who has not recognized it for what it is.

It is doubtful whether it qualifies as thinking at all, seeing as it falls short of even one dimension in its complexity, let alone the three (if you're normal) or four (if you have pretensions to scientific thinking) or ten (if you're a confirmed physicist) that the rest of the world lives in.

Let me illustrate. Binary thinking reduces everything to two points, thusly:

A. .B

In politics, especially of the American variety, this means you're either a bleeding-heart, pinko, atheistic commie or a flinty-eyed, redneck, heartless fascist.

This, of course, ignores the possibility of a complete first dimension, which looks like this:


There are lots of intermediate points (an infinite number, if you want to get picky) between A and B. There are a lot of gradations of colour, even between the pinko and the redneck.

And all of this conveniently ignores the fact that there is more than one dimension. (No, I am not going to try to illustrate this with a keyboard. You are going to have to draw your own mental pictures.) There is a point C above the line and a point D below it. Now we are dealing with an embarrassing number of points. Because there are, yanno, God-fearing liberals and atheistic conservatives. And generous conservatives and skin-flint liberals.

It gets better. Between you and the line AB, (Yes, I know it's a square now. Don't get difficult.) there is a point E. And on the other side of AB there is a point F. Because there are, yanno, authoritarian liberals and libertarian liberals. And authoritarian conservatives and libertarian conservatives. And the vast majority, who fall somewhere in the muddled middle of what is now a cube.

In all the vast space of the cube, it seems beyond childish to try to pile every single issue into a box on point A or another on point B. I would be greatly in favour of scrapping the terms "liberal" and "conservative" altogether. They generate more heat than light, and obscure thinking more often than encouraging it.

Please note that binary thinking is also a handy tool of salesmen and advertisers the world over. If you don't buy car seat Brand A, your children will die horrible deaths. (Of course, they are a little more subtle about it, but that's the message they want you to get.) Because a couple of cars have been broken into in your neighbourhood, you had better buy my security system, so you won't be facing a raving lunatic with a knife in your dark living room. (Yes, this one was used on me recently. He put lots of sentences in between Point A and Point B so that I wouldn't catch on to the absurdity. It didn't work.)

Reality can almost never be reduced to an either/or situation. Be suspicious of such simplistic analysis whenever it comes along. And look for the intermediate points, because out on the extreme edge is rarely a good place to be.

ETA: After posting this, I found this quote in my Quote of the Day box:
Thanks to TV and for the convenience of TV, you can only be one of two kinds of human beings, either a liberal or a conservative.
- Kurt Vonnegut

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