Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Atomic Fallacy

[Greg Bullock]
Wikipedia cites the following speech to illustrate the meaning and origins of the so-called “If-by-whiskey” fallacy []:

My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about whiskey. All right, here is how I feel about whiskey:

If when you say whiskey you mean the devil's brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, and despair, and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness, then certainly I am against it.

But, if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer; if you mean the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman's step on a frosty, crispy morning; if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify his joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life's great tragedies, and heartaches, and sorrows; if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitiful aged and infirm; to build highways and hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it.

This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.

I believe that the original speech from which the term is derived may have been misinterpreted, and that calling the "if-by-whiskey" concept a fallacy is itself fallacious.

The lawmaker’s speech is equally likely intended to be a sardonic mockery of what I would term the “atomic fallacy”–the idea that a concept represented by the conventional shorthand term for a controversial topic is an atomic proposition, which a rational person is logically bound to be wholly “for” or “against.”

Contemporary examples  of such terms would be “global warming” or “gun control.” Because discourse on a controversy tends to be dominated by its most zealous ideologues, debate reinforces the idea that these types of terms refer to a simple atomic proposition, rather than a collection of propositions. In fact, a concept such as “global warming” enfolds many separate propositions, propositions about which intelligent people could–with logical consistency and good sense–hold multiple divergent opinions.

The multiple propositions implied by the term “global warming” include: humans are able to detect and quantify the average temperature of the earth, the earth's average temperature is increasing, increased CO2 is the cause, human activity is the cause of increased CO2, the causal activity consists of oxidation of carbon fuels, CO2 is the most significant contributor to warming, the combined effects of warming are on balance negative, warming is not likely to be countered by offsetting natural effects, humans should take action to reduce CO2, humans can take action to reduce CO2, the actions taken should center on reducing oxidation of carbon fuels, actions that can be taken can be significant enough to reduce warming, actions will not have unintended effects worse than warming, effects will not fail to due unanticipated counter effects, and record high temperatures are evidence for global warming.

The last point is related to why advocates of the global warming concept have switched to the term "climate change." People might naively think due to attention directed to record high temperatures that extreme examples of cold temperatures would therefore imply evidence against global warming. Since increasing temperatures can cause shifts in ocean currents that can cause cold weather, average warming could plausibly cause cold effects. The change in terminology is intended to avoid counting cold temperatures as evidence against average temperature increases.

Most areas of public policy debate are discussed using convenient shorthand terms. In many cases, the advocates for a cause attempt to control which terms are used. In the case of abortion, the terms used were historically different for each side, with proponents of one side using “pro-choice,” and the other using “pro-life.” In these cases, the terms were intentionally selected to draw the mind towards an atomic, single concept and imply that any other view is opposed to that concept. Few people discussing a more abstract topic would consider themselves  opposed to “choice” or “life.” The debate over the terminology demonstrates the power that the atomic fallacy gives to the term that comes to be used when discussing a topic.

The atomic fallacy impedes constructive discussion of controversial topics. Failing to examine the deeper multiple realities behind a politically charged term may lead people to believe that compromise is not possible and to view those on the opposed side as closed-minded and evil. The result is polarization, gridlock, and conflict..

Seeing through the fallacy enables people to find common ground. They may even be able to make progress on some of the contributing causes to a problem when the ultimate controversies are not resolvable. Discovering the reality of a controversy becomes less of an intractable problem, because people can pursue specific lines of questioning, in contrast to the hurling of arbitrary “facts” and slogans into which debates tend to degenerate. Most importantly, awareness of the tendency to think in atomic terms and the deliberate exploitation of this tendency for propaganda purposes can allow someone to take a more rational and deliberative approach to both thinking and personal action.


  1. Quite an inisghtful post, Greg. I'm remiss that I didn't get around to reading it until now. I would concur with your assessments. I have long lamented the whole concept of "if you're not with us, then you're against us", which is certainly similar to what you have discussed here.

    Most people fail to realize that the good often comes with some bad, and vice versa. Nothing is ever truly black and white and there's two sides to every story, etc. I think that your colorful representation of that puts some of these modern-day "hot topics" into a different perspective. People are just too hung up on creating artificial "sides" where none need to exist.


These blogs represent my thoughts, ideas and opinions. They may be different from yours. You may not agree with them. While I do enjoy a good, polite debate on a topic (where points are countered with other points based on logic, reason and fact), I do not enjoy an argument (where you tell me that I am wrong simply because you disagree and cannot offer any reasons to support your position). I am very respectful of others, and I expect everyone on here to be respectful in return, not only to me, but to each other as well. Disrespectful posts will be deleted automatically. Feel free to share your ideas, but keep it civil, please.