Why I’m About To “No true Scotsman” You


Wikipedia says,

When faced with a counterexample to a universal claim (“no Scotsman would do such a thing”), rather than denying the counterexample or rejecting the original universal claim, this fallacy modifies the subject of the assertion to exclude the specific case or others like it by rhetoric, without reference to any specific objective rule (“no true Scotsman would do such a thing”).

And yet, I am about to “No true Scotsman” all over you. I’m looking for objective rules about what makes a story a story. “No true Scotsman” is a fallacy when you have a rule saying who is and who is not a Scotsman. When you don’t have the objective rules, and you’re arguing about what they are, you can’t reference them.

Say you’re on the Olympic committee that decides what should and should not be an Olympic sport. The question of the biathlon comes up. One might suggest that, as there are already individual events for skiing and marksmanship, they should not be combined into a single sport unless all possible combinations of two single-event Olympics sports are also recognized as Olympic sports. Or one might suggest that a military training exercise is not the same thing as a sport. Or the question of curling comes up, and one might object that to be an Olympic sport, for an international competition, a sport should be practiced in more than one nation. Or one might say that a true Olympic sport should not make observers fall down laughing, or should not be something done to pass the time while drinking beer.

You wouldn’t accuse the Olympic committee member of committing the “no true Scotsman” fallacy (unless, perhaps, you were a biathlete). She’s just trying to do her job. She has to look at the set of sports, and the set of recognized Olympic sports, and try to figure out what distinguishes Olympic sports.

Similarly, I’m going to look at stories, and try to figure out what distinguishes “proper” stories. I already believe there are rules to these things, because I see so many regularities in stories. The properties of stories are not distributed randomly! But even supposing that there are rules, I still expect people, in their error-prone ways, to write and publish many “improper” stories that don’t fit the rules. So if you can point to a story published inThe Youth’s Companion in 1902 that breaks my rule, I don’t care. I’ll No True Scotsman it without a second thought. I expect to find fake Scotsman all over the place. I wouldn’t be too dismayed if most published stories broke my rules, as long as most of the great stories observe them.

In fact, a rule that’s followed by great stories and broken by lots of not-so-great stories is better than a rule broken by no stories at all! A rule broken by no stories at all (say, “A story must contain at least 2 different letters of the alphabet”) is useless. I want rules that help me avoid making mistakes that I might have made, not mistakes I wouldn’t consider making.


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