The “No True Scotsman” fallacy is an informal logical fallacy that occurs when someone modifies a universal generalization in the face of a counterexample, rather than accepting that the original claim was false. Essentially, it involves redefining the criteria for membership in a group to exclude counterexamples. The term was coined by the philosopher Antony Flew in his 1975 book “Thinking About Thinking: Do I Sincerely Want to Be Right?”
The fallacy usually takes on a form resembling the following:
Person A: “All members of Group X have characteristic Y.”
Person B: “Here’s a counterexample where a member of Group X does not have characteristic Y.”
Person A: “Well, any ‘true’ or ‘genuine’ member of Group X would have characteristic Y.”
The problem with this line of reasoning is that it doesn’t actually rebut the counterexample; instead, it shifts the goalposts, changing the original claim to exclude the counterexample.
Let’s say someone argues that “No true American would ever disrespect the flag.”
Then someone points out that John, who was born and raised in America, burned an American flag during a political protest.
The person then retorts, “Well, John isn’t a true American.”
In this case, the original statement—”No true American would ever disrespect the flag”—is modified to exclude John, thereby sidestepping the counterexample rather than dealing with it directly. The person who made the original claim avoids having to admit that the claim is too sweeping and inaccurate by altering the criteria for what constitutes a “true American.”
By doing this, the person is committing the No True Scotsman fallacy, protecting their original claim from falsification by arbitrarily redefining its terms. This kind of reasoning is faulty because it doesn’t allow for any possibility that could prove the original statement wrong, making it essentially unfalsifiable and thus, not a sound argument.