Nature versus nurture: the problems of binary thinking

One of the biggest logic traps humans fall into – which I see time and again in all kinds of places – is the false dichotomy fallacy. We are conditioned into it: the idea that the terms of discussion presented to us are the sole terms available. We therefore argue over whether one, or the other, is correct. In the process, the idea that both might be right – or that the answer might be shades of grey between – is lost.

Picture the scene: a problem exists. Let’s say it’s trying to find out whether humans are shaped by nature (innate characteristics, implying humans have no choice in how they are) or nurture (their upbringing, implying that how people are is wholly choice). Or maybe it’s whether climate change is caused by natural forces or by humans.

The two postulates – one or another – immediately frame the argument. Are humans shaped by nature, OR by nurture? Is the climate changing from natural causes OR by human effect?

Silver fern in the Ball’s Clearing reserve.

I picked those examples deliberately because neither question is answerable in either-or terms. Most arguments about them, as far as I can tell, attempt to do so in polemic terms. And the reason we keep arguing, often, is because the postulates are wrong. Sometimes the question shouldn’t be framed in either-or terms. Sometimes it should be framed as an ‘all of the above’, or ‘some of the above’ terms.

In short – and in those examples particularly – we’re actually arguing over irrelevancies. The right question has yet to be popularly posed.

That’s the thing about binary thinking. Sometimes, and particularly when considering complex multi-factor issues such as the causes of climate change and the origins of human nature, the question cannot be reduced to polemic.

That’s clear enough in the case of both those examples. More nuanced ‘shades-of-grey’ approaches have made it pretty clear that human nature is a product of BOTH innate characteristics, AND upbringing; the issue is how this inter-relates. And climate change is a product of a wide range of differing natural factors, AND the impact of humanity across the globe. Again, the issue is how that inter-relates, although this has been answered. It’s quite clear that the impact of humanity is by far the major factor now, and has been for a while.

I mention all this not to get into debate about climate change or human nature, but to point out how the underlying frameworks around which we pose questions and draw conclusions can, themselves, lead us in directions that prevent answers. All we end up doing is arguing over things.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2019

2 thoughts on “Nature versus nurture: the problems of binary thinking

  1. Framing issues as one thing OR another is appealing, both to media and their consumers. It’s like the search for THE answer to something that has many answers. Too confusing or too much work.

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  2. Couldn’t agree with this post more! I personally have found that there is a problem with increasing levels of binary thinking. Even the difference between when I was in high school to uni to now is massive- when I was in high school the prevailing analysis I found of something like nature or nurture was quite nuanced- but I’ve found there’s an increasing desire to posit everything in more binary terms, so even these types of debates become more nature VS nurture- like you have to pick a side (if that makes sense). And this is also very strongly reflected in political debates, far more often cast as RIGHT VS WRONG.

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