Now that both the DNC and RNC are over and Labor Day is upon us we are now in the true presidential campaign season. We can now expect to see all of the classic logical fallacies, both formal and informal to be in full use. An unlike many past elections we can expect to see one party to use those logical fallacies more than the other. This is because one party, the Republican Party, has become totally addicted to them. Indeed we were not even to Labor Day and the GOP has used one of my favorite fallacies already.
I’m speaking, of course, of the fallacy known as the “False Equivalency”. This maybe the oldest of the informal logical fallacies known to man. It is certainly one we all learn to use at a very early age. It is often found keeping company with the logical impossibility of proving a negative as asking the challenger(s) to “prove that the statement is not an equivalent” is made. What needs to be done in all cases is to provide proof that the stated equivalencies does exist.
One of the reasons that the fallacy of false equivalence is so popular is that most people are never taught the difference between “equality” and ”equivalent”. This is a very hard concept to get across in programming and even harder in everyday life. Its misuse has lead to many a difficult bug to find because the code reads correctly even though it is not executed correctly. The same is true, in practice, in everyday life. It sounds right, even when it is wrong and it takes careful scrutiny of what one is saying to check it.
In the common usage equal is used to mean a kind of identity, that two things are identical twins. No one would say that twins are the same thing. But for most things saying they are ‘identical’ is ok. But in many things it is not. That is why you have to be clear as to how, when, and where you are saying two thing are identical. That they are equal. That is why we say “All men are equal before the law”; we mean they will be treated the same. And that is why false equivalency is so bad.
When you say two things are equivalent and they aren’t, you will end up in the wrong place in your reasoning. And what is worse, the people who are listening to you will will also end up in the wrong place. When they try and use the equivalencies drawn to deal with an issue they will not get the results they expect. As an example, both methanol and ethanol are alcohol but if you try to make a Hi-Ball with methanol you’ll end up blind or dead instead of just drunk.
So beware when someone says “this is the same as that” in a political speech or debate. Examine what they say carefully and be sure in your own mind that they truly are equivalent in the case given. Beware of wanting to just accept what is said because it agrees with what you think or makes you feel good. Also don’t reject someone when they say “But that is a false equivalence”. Instead of rejecting ask them to explain why they think that. They just might be right.