2592: False Dichotomy

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
Jump to: navigation, search
False Dichotomy
There are two types of dichotomy: False dichotomies, true dichotomies, and surprise trichotomies.
Title text: There are two types of dichotomy: False dichotomies, true dichotomies, and surprise trichotomies.


A dichotomy is two alternatives which are normally mutually exclusive (such as the dichotomy between a flat Earth and non-flat Earth). A false dichotomy is a logical fallacy based on an incorrect perception of limited options (for example: if the page background isn't white, it is black).

Cueball has apparently made one such error and is being called out by White Hat for it. Upon having this pointed out to him, Cueball says that we must embrace false dichotomies, because the only other option is cannibalism. This statement is another false dichotomy, as presenting false dichotomies is not the only alternative to cannibalism[citation needed]. The reverse (that cannibalism is incompatible with expressing false dichotomies) is also not potentially true, as eating people may eventually result in having nobody you need to present false dichotomies to.

Cueball has thus created another false dichotomy to excuse his first.

The false dichotomy Cueball appears to be referring to is the notion that those identified as human must not be eaten, but even closely related animals are not human and can be eaten, i.e. species can be divided clearly between "human" and "food". If this dichotomy is not accepted, then consuming any species that shares, for instance, any significant percentage of DNA with humans could be considered a measure of cannibalism.

The title text states that there are two kinds of dichotomies, making a dichotomy in itself. Due to three types of dichotomy being mentioned, and only two being foreshadowed, this statement is itself a surprise trichotomy, or three-parted choice. The title text is a variation of the "Two kinds of People" joke. The classic math nerd variant is "There are three kinds of people in the world, those who can count, and those who can't." Alternatively, it may refer to a variation about binary. The original joke usually goes something like this: "There are 10 types of people: those who know binary, and those who don't." The variation is usually something like the following: "There are 10 types of people: those who know binary, and those who don't, and those who weren't expecting a ternary joke." Another version of this kind of joke is "there are two kinds of people: those who can extrapolate from an incomplete data set,"

The word trichotomy is a relative neologism, to be understood as to mean "divided into (or amongst) three parts", having replaced the original prefix "di-" (a factor of two, either doubled or, by context, halved) with that of "tri-" (similarly tripled/thirded). Strictly, though, dichotomy more directly stems from Greek elements that say "apart, I cut", with "apart" being represented by the "dicho-" (itself being roughly "into two", or to separate) which does not have a direct "tricho-" equivalent, although it does ultimately derive from "duo", Greek for "two". This is the kind of linguistic nuance that Randall clearly enjoys, yet may also happily or carelessly (mis)use without compunction.

It can also be translated through the other Greek word, θρίξ (thríx), turning "trichotomy" into "cutting hair off". The fact that both characters in this strip don't have visible hair is probably just a coincidence.


[White Hat and Cueball are talking to each other. White Hat has his arms spread outwards in exasperation, while Cueball gestures assertively with his pointer finger.]
White Hat: That's a false dichotomy!
Cueball: Yes, but we have to embrace false dichotomies, because the only alternative is cannibalism.

comment.png add a comment! ⋅ comment.png add a topic (use sparingly)! ⋅ Icons-mini-action refresh blue.gif refresh comments!


This is my second explanation ever, it probably isnt great but its good for others to have something to start from. if anybody who knows how to do the links and everything, for all of the characters and the fancy words, please do that. ElijahRock (talk) 17:57, 11 March 2022 (UTC)

And here I thought it was a pun on tracheotomy...

I’m pretty sure the cannibalism joke is based on the idea that we have to create a “false dichotomy” between humans and non-human living things, or else we can’t say that it’s okay to eat some things (maybe the line is drawn at plants, maybe at animals) but not others (a category that usually includes humans). Pablo360 (talk) 19:03, 11 March 2022 (UTC)

I don't think it's that specific. Often false dichotomies use something horrible or unthinkable as the alternative, and cannibalism is about as taboo as it gets. Barmar (talk)
no, that's delving too far into a fairly simple joke. "Embracing dichotomies and Cannibalism" is a false dichotomy itself! He could have said anything "skydiving", "poison swallowing", anything... It's the fact it's a false dichotomy used to justify false dichotomies. GET IT?!?!?
That makes no sense, humans are demonstrably different from all other creatures, even without arguing human exceptionalism we are a different species which is a very well defined concept-- 13:21, 19 March 2022 (UTC)

I think the title text joke is more based on "There are 2 hard problems in computer science: cache invalidation, naming things, and off-by-1 errors." Barmar (talk) 19:29, 11 March 2022 (UTC)

Trichotomy is not a portmanteau but a real word by itself, and it means what is supposed to mean, i.e., division in three categories. Vdm (talk) 21:36, 11 March 2022 (UTC)

I had not read this comment, when I dove in myself. I agree, though it is an artificial and (slightly) incorrect swap of di- to tri- so is a relative neologism. I've endeavoured to summarise what I understand of it (wiktionary lacks some of the depth, as you try to drill down, and I'm not sure I can provide full references for my version!) and removed the presumption of being a portmanteau. Which I would rather apply to two independent words being melded together, not a replacement of one prefix (or suffix, or infix) with another equivalently elemental fragmentary affix.
But that's just my opinion. Open to further editing. (Maybe shoving in a Trivia section, also!) 01:09, 12 March 2022 (UTC)
Isn’t the morpheme “-tricho-“ about hair? So “trichotomy” should mean “haircut”. 23:22, 12 March 2022 (UTC)

It may be a stretch, but Cueball’s dialogue could be a reference to A Modest Proposal, which satirically creates an extended false dichotomy between poverty and cannibalism Lordoftheroboflies (talk) 23:11, 11 March 2022 (UTC)

[citation needed] (I don't know what you're referring to :) ) Kev (talk) 15:22, 12 March 2022 (UTC)
It's a fairly well known piece of satire by Johnathan Swift. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Modest_Proposal 23:10, 12 March 2022 (UTC)
It isnt actually a false Dichotomy, it is a satirical argument that it is more moral to eat babies than to let poor people die from starvation/exposure, rather than anything conflating the two as the same. 04:30, 15 March 2022 (UTC)

Personally I saw the title text as a reference to Monty Python's Spanish Inqusition: "Our chief weapon is surprise, surprise and fear, fear and surprise. Our *two* weapons are fear and surprise, and ruthless efficiency. Our *three* weapons are fear and surprise and ruthless efficiency and an almost fanatical dedication to the pope." 12:16, 16 March 2022 (UTC)

It is possible that when he refers to "surprise trichotomies," he is referring to the cannibalism-false dichotomy false dichotomy. The third element is vegetarianism.