False equivalence

In some ways the False equivalence fallacy is the direct opposite of a False dilemma.

False equivalence is an informal fallacy that describes a situation where there is an apparent similarity between two things, but in fact they are not equivalent.  The two things may share some common characteristics, but they have important differences that are overlooked for the purposes of the argument.

The pattern of the fallacy often looks like this: if A has characteristics c and d, and B has characteristics d and e, then since they both have characteristic d, A and B are equivalent. In practice, often only a passing similarity is required between A and B for this fallacy to be committed.

The following statements are examples of false equivalence:

‘They’re both soft, cuddly pets. There’s no difference between a cat and a dog.’

‘We all bleed red. We’re all no different from each other.’

‘Hitler, Stalin and Mao were evil atheists; therefore all atheists are evil.’

A more complex example is where somebody claims that more Australians are killed by sharks or road accidents than by terrorism, therefore we should not do anything to stop terrorism. This example ignores the fact that terrorist acts are prevented by doing something, such as surveillance and intelligence.  We also choose to take the risks of swimming in the ocean and driving in cars, but we cannot avoid the risk of terrorism no matter what we do.

False equivalence is occasionally claimed in politics, where one political party will accuse their opponents of having performed equally wrong actions, usually as a red herring in an attempt to deflect criticism of their own behaviour. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

On the other hand, politicians might accuse journalists of False equivalence in their reporting of political controversies if the stories are perceived to assign equal blame to opposing parties.  However, False equivalence should not be confused with False balance – the media phenomenon of presenting two sides of an argument equally in disregard of the merit or evidence on a subject (a form of argument to moderation).

Moral equivalence is a special case of False equivalence where it is falsely claimed, often for ideological motives, that both sides are equally to blame for a war or other international conflict. The historical evidence shows that this is rarely the case.

Another special case of False equivalence is Political correctness, which may be defined as language, ideas, policies, or behavior that seeks to minimise social offence in relation to occupational, gender, racial, cultural, sexual orientation, certain other religions, beliefs or ideologies, disability, and age-related contexts, to an excessive extent thus inhibiting free speech.

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Filed under Logical fallacies

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