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Spo-fans know I am fascinated by cognitive bias, those unconscious ways of (poor) thinking that greatly influence our actions and decisions even when we think we are being rationale and impartial. I’ve written on a few of these. Yesterday Debra (the dear!) left a comment about my great-aunt, a woman who believed all weather-related damage was a sign of divine wrath upon the wicked – until there was a flood in S.D. where her people were. That was not G-d’s will as they were good people. The flooding was the fault of the U.S. government for not putting in place proper levees. It made me think of the “no true Scotsman’ fallacy.

The name of this fallacy comes from a story about a Scotsman with a conviction what defines a true Scotsman. What he believes makes a true Scotsman varies. In example I first heard said Scotsman criticizes a local brouhaha that he reads in the newspaper that occurred in an English town. He comments ‘no Scotsman would act that way’. He then reads the perpetrator comes from Scotland. He then states the man is no true Scotsman. Another example: “No Scotsman puts sugar in his tea” says our man. Another man replies “I was born and raised in Edinburgh and I put sugar on my tea.” The first man replies, “Well, no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”

The No True Scotsman (NTS) is an error in logic; it is committed when someone tries to change the definition of something in order to ignore a valid counter-example. You fall victim to the NTS fallacy when your identity becomes intertwined with your definitions. It happens in a conflict of belief and data. NTS is an attempt to defend some universal claim like “all X are Y”. It does this by excusing a legitimate instance of the contrary “here is an X that is not Y.” The logical response would be to drop the beliefs in favor of “some Scotsmen do put sugar in their tea’ and “Scotsmen are capable of shenanigans just like the English.” Rather than kicking out the ones not fitting into your convictions.

Leaving the Scots alone for a while (true ones or not) I see this in American politics. Once upon a time (I think it was in the 70s) there were various GOP types, but none were accused of being ‘not true GOP’. There were varieties under the same roof. No more they’re not. Ms. Cheney is arguably still quite a GOP-er, but she’s been ostracized for being no true GOP-er as she doesn’t believe what all GOP members are commanded to believe. “No true GOP-er” would say what she says, so out she went.

On a lighter note, in high school, in German class, I sat next to an exchange student named Sheena Livingston who was from some town north of Edinburgh. We would run by her cliche-questions* about life in Scotland. She would laugh and say no true Scotsman would do such a thing. She pointed out Scotland wasn’t a homogenous country but a collection of regions with different tastes and sometimes vastly different styles, not unlike comparing New Englanders to folks from Wisconsin or Alabama. There was no ‘true Scotsman’ thinking for her. May it be so for all of us, and not just thems from Scotland.

*Do all people in Scotland know how to play the bagpipes – that sort of thing. Oh the horror.

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August 2022

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