False Dichotomies and Forced Divisions

Last week I received an email with this tagline:

“Replacing an on-site customer with some use cases is about as effective
as replacing a hug from your Mom with a friendly note.”

I enjoy this person’s funny, witty, and constantly changing taglines. They certainly add zest to mail messages. But this one bugged me. It set up a false dichotomy. A false dichotomy occurs when someone sets up choices so that it appears there are only two possible conclusions when in fact there are further alternatives. Consider the phrase “if you’re not for me you must be against me.” Most of the time this is a false dichotomy. There are other possibilities. You may totally be indifferent to the person’s proposed idea or undecided. There may be several unmentioned possibilities (and they may not be mutually exclusive).

Driving to a Portland SPIN meeting last night I saw this bumper sticker: “I don’t have to like George Bush to love my country”. Wow. A false dichotomy pointed out in the political arena. What a novelty!

But back to what bugs me about this tagline. It first set up the false dichotomy that “mom’s hug” is better than “friendly note”. But wait! Mom’s hugs aren’t always better than friendly notes. Maybe you need that friendly note to help you through a tough day. Maybe that friendly note includes a useful reminder. In that case a friendly hug might be a good start, but it’s not enough. Mom can always give you a friendly hug and write you a friendly note.

The tagline then makes the powerful analogy between mom and onsite customer, and friendly note and use cases. If you don’t think this through you could end up being swayed to believe that use cases and notes are never as good as mom or onsite customers or apple pie (and that you have to pick one). But use cases and onsite customers can co-exist if you need them to. There are legitimate reasons to write things down. Maybe writing helps a customer sort through what she really wants. There can be value in recording what was said because it needs remembering by more than the development team. The next time someone tries to sway you by setting up a false dichotomy don€’t get caught in their faulty reasoning. Stop. Think things through. Then decide what your position is or whether you see more possibilities.

3 thoughts on “False Dichotomies and Forced Divisions

  1. You wrote: “Mom can always give you a friendly hug and write you a friendly note” (my emphassis) but the original message about “replacing” one for the other.

    Some companies do try to replace personal two-way interchange of information with a one-way document transfer, and they suffer for it. Comparing that with taking away mother and replacing her with a note makes the reason for the suffering obvious (with a certain degree of humor).

  2. I don’t read the comment as a false dichotomy, because it doesn’t imply there are no other alternatives. It simply says that if you do happen to replace the on-site customer with some use cases, then things aren’t going to go as well.

  3. Well…perhaps you don’t read the tagline as a false dichotomy because you see different shades of “going well”…but to me the key to setting up the false dichotomy is the word “replacing”..which means you can have one or the other (but not both). That is something I think that certain people believe about agile practices. They read into the agile manifesto phrases “favoring x over y” to mean (we only do x and never y).

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