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The fallacy of false equivalence

with 17 comments

I don’t enjoy lecturing others on basic logical fallacies, especially when doing so may appear to insult their intelligence. But yet it seems unless people are aware of this fallacy, some would continue to peddle misleading comparisons or make unqualified sweeping statements. This is a topic I thought I would be able to find on Singaporean Skeptic’s blog, but I couldn’t find any so I decided to write a post on it.

What is false equivalence and why is it a fallacy?  Let’s take an example.  In 2004, when then Republican President George W. Bush ran for re-election against Democrat John Kerry, the issue of both candidates’ military service came up.  John Kerry was a Vietnam veteran who was awarded three Purple Hearts; in contrast George W. Bush never served in Vietnam but in the Texan Air National Guard.

In this post, the author points out that the AP constructed a fallacious line of reasoning of false equivalence:

This otherwise good AP article on the growing AWOL story misses the mark when its author, Pete Yost, perpetuates the fallacy of false equivalence.

With national security and the war on terrorism looming large on voters’ minds, supporters of Bush and Democratic nominee John Kerry are attacking each candidate’s Vietnam War records. Republicans have accused Kerry, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran, of fabricating the events which led to his five medals. Democrats point to gaps in Bush’s stateside Air National Guard service in 1972 and 1973 to say Bush shirked his duty.

The is a false equivalence because all the documentary evidence released so far with respect to Kerry’s record backs up his claims and, in many cases, directly refutes the claims of his attackers. However, in the case of Bush, it is the documentary evidence that repeatedly punches holes in Bush’s claims about his own service and thus shows the attacks to be justified.

Got that Pete?

Kerry: the records back him up.

Bush: the records shoot him down.

Not the same thing.

In other words, a false equivalence fallacy occurs when someone falsely equates an act by one party as being equally egregious to that of another without taking into account the underlying differences which may make the comparison patently invalid.

Here’s another explanation of false equivalence on the Huffington Post.  Here’s yet another example regarding the creation/evolution dispute.  One more here if you have the time.

Now why am I highlighting this logical fallacy instead of countless others?  Because it turns out I have been arguing with many others recently who employ precisely such fallacious reasoning.  Let’s take a look at this post in closer detail.  Person B highlights the fact that other news organisations have their own biases, therefore no news agency is really better than any others.  Not even between North Korea’s KCNA and the New York Times.  Such a reasoning of course, completely ignores the underlying facts such as the degree of control the North Korean government has over its state media and the fact that the New York Times has broken stories in the past detrimental to the reputation of the American government such as the Pentagon Papers.

Let’s take a look at another example on this blog.  A commenter, Doesn’t Matter, pointed out one shouldn’t single out or blame Temasek Holdings for its losses since analysts do make mistakes and that includes the legendary Warren Buffett:

the fact that some people having warned against those purchases doesn’t mean squat unless they showed that the risks clearly outweighed the potential benefits, and that no sane investor would have gone ahead. these things are all probabilistic, no?

also, unless u’re telling me that everyone (with considered opinions) other than temasek thought those were bad purchases, otherwise in the end, someone’s gonna be right, someone’s gonna be wrong. some fella turning out to be correct this time doesn’t mean squat. let’s look at his investment record. and even warren buffett makes mistakes right.

i’m not saying that it was the right decision, nor even that temasek is any gd at what it does. my pt was simply that that sentence disregarded any wider context that should have been included. it made for good rhetoric though, which i guess was the intent, so i’m just quibbling lah.

Now why do I consider this an example of false equivalence?  This is because all DM has said is that everyone makes mistakes from time to time and this includes Buffett.  And since all financial analysis is based on the possibility that they might be wrong, we shouldn’t be pouncing on poor Temasek Holdings.  In return, tongue in cheek, I offered a reply which contains that very same fallacy.

DM’s line of reasoning completely ignores the underlying and supporting facts which distinguishes Temasek Holdings from other investment funds/sovereign wealth funds:

  • Another sovereign wealth fund, Abu Dhabi Investment Corp, sold Barclays at a profit of £1.5 billion while Temasek lost over a billion dollars on the same investment.
  • Temasek Holdings has been extraordinarily secretive compared to Warren Buffett’s publicly listed Berkshire Hathaway.
  • Temasek Holdings leverages itself on the hard-earned savings of Singaporeans whose coerced savings are locked up in CPF whereas Berkshire and Abu Dhabi does not. (Update: Lucky pointed out this isn’t the case)
  • And many many other points which I am too lazy to list…

The fallacy of false equivalence is often deployed by many, many government apologists or people who claim to be neutral or simply haven’t declared a stand.  It is worth highlighting, I believe, once and for all that unless they are willing to examine the supporting facts and arguments, they are perpetrating nothing more than fallacious reasoning.

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Written by defennder

July 22, 2009 at 2:45 PM

Posted in Sciences

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17 Responses

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  1. Hey great post on logical fallacies. In my opinion, there should be modules for our JC/Poly students teaching them about logical fallacies using real world examples. Far too often I see people misleading others or being misled by logical fallacies.

    One very common other fallacy I always encounter is “false dichotomy”.

    1. For instance, I always encounter people arguing that would we rather be led by “lunatic” Chee Soon Juan instead of the “capable though not perfect” PAP?

    2. Or that would we rather pay our ministers peanuts and end up as corrupt as Malaysia/Indonesia?

    3. Just very recently, KJ wrote a poem on TOC complaining how the safety of our city came at the cost of stifling sterility and nauseating conformity. And in the comments section, there were still several who argued that would we rather have the violence of JB/Manila “just to please him”?

    On an unrelated note, congrats on getting higher and higher readership. Where there is substance, readers will follow. =)

    IM

    July 22, 2009 at 5:14 PM

  2. Great article. Just a small correction. It is the GIC borrows from our CPF by selling the CPF bonds. Temasek does not leverage on the CPF and its assets comes from Ministry of Finance such as stakes in our GLCs.

    Lucky Tan

    July 22, 2009 at 7:10 PM

  3. a quick note first. i think the KCNA/NYT example is good/valid one, but it seems (to me, at least) that the *existence/usage* of the fallacy isn’t dependent on what the underlying facts are.

    for sure, the underlying facts are essential in discerning the “truth”. but a statement like “newspaper A and newspaper B each have their own biases, therefore they’re equally good/bad”, suffers from the fallacy regardless of what the underlying facts are.

    Doesnt Matter

    July 23, 2009 at 1:40 AM

  4. on to the bush/kerry example. it’s a less convincing example i think, because it’s somewhat ambiguous.

    you could say that the paragraph is implying that: both candidates’ records have been attacked, therefore both candidates are equally unpatriotic (or whatever).

    but i think you could also interpret the paragraph as simply saying: both candidates’ records have been attacked. this is how kerry’s was attacked. and this is how bush’s was attached. period.

    in this case, i would say that the paragraph lends itself to misinterpretation leading to false equivalence, but not that the logical argument of the paragraph follows such a fallacy.

    as an aside, the reference AP article doesn’t actually contain that paragraph, although that blog post seems to indicate that it’s a direct quote. the article got modified, perhaps.

    Doesnt Matter

    July 23, 2009 at 1:59 AM

  5. Defennder,

    I thought this was an educational and very thought-provoking post. I sense you made some effort (or maybe it comes naturally to u) to not get personal/offensive, and for that, you have my thanks and respect.

    nonetheless, i do have several pts to raise.

    1) re: “one shouldn’t single out or blame Temasek Holdings for its losses”. i think that sentence mischaracterizes my position, and also doesn’t really follow from my statements. briefly, my stand is simply that those losses, on their own, may not be indicative of the competence of TH. i’m not saying that TH actually *is* competent, and certainly not the sentence above.

    2) as i’ve indicated, my comment was rather loose, leaving a number of gaps for the reader to fill/infer.

    3) that said, i still dun think it’s an example of false equivalence. i infer from your post that your interpretation of my comment is sth like “TH made mistakes. buffett made mistakes. therefore TH is as good/bad as buffett.”

    4) i clearly stated that “i’m not saying that… temasek is any gd”. and i do think that if there’s an example of a gd investor, it would be buffett (i’m sure u didn’t think that I thought otherwise). so, where is there any indication that i’ve equated temasek and buffett?

    5) moreover, even if you just focus on the words you put in bold, i think my use of the word “even” indicates a disparity between buffett and temasek (and others). again, where is the implied equivalence?

    6) re: “we shouldn’t be pouncing on poor Temasek Holdings”. if people pounce, it should be for the right reasons. certainly not solely based on 2 bad purchases, which is what i was arguing against. as for the other reasons to diss Temasek, I’ve yet to develop an informed opinion.

    In sum, i think you’ve read more into my statements than I intended to convey. Certainly a significant part of that is my fault for not being clearer.

    Doesnt Matter

    July 23, 2009 at 3:17 AM

  6. Hi IM, yes I agree that a lot of those arguments peddled by establishment apologists are really nothing more than embellished fallacies. Sometimes I do see genuine arguments, but the bulk of those on forums and blogs are just that. Thanks for highlighting those instances of fallacious reasoning.

    Also yeah, I’ve been noticing higher readership as well. It’s quite unfortunate that my schedule is getting tighter at the moment. I hope to tide over the next week soon.

    defennder

    July 25, 2009 at 5:42 PM

  7. Hmm, that’s something I wasn’t aware of. Thanks for pointing out this important fact, Lucky. I’ll do the necessary correction. I’ve been searching for some official or notable sources lately on the link between CPF and the SWFs, but to not much luck I’m afraid.

    I do stumble across occasional news commentary on the web referring saying that the SWFs are not managing Singaporeans’ money, but no explicit description of that relationship to that effect though I’ve garnered some ideas (from your past blog entries and others) as to how it all links up.

    defennder

    July 25, 2009 at 5:48 PM

  8. DM, the paragraph does not contain any “logical argument”. Journalists are not in the business of doing that. You seem to be splitting hairs in interpreting the given example as an instance of false equivalence. I highlighted that only as an example. Anyone is free to dispute the accuracy of that claim, but the existence of the fallacy of false equivalence itself is not undermined if it were somehow shown later that there is no false equivalence involved. I find it quite ironic that you are claiming I misread you by reading too much into what you wrote when you yourself did the same for that post I quoted.

    As for your stand, I can barely distinguish a thread of coherent argument. You say that losses may not be indicative of TH’s competence. That seems to me to be a very odd statement to make. It’s like saying an investor’s competence cannot be judged by his losses. Mind you these losses are not paper losses but actual losses. So presumably if we can’t judge competence through gains and losses, what else should we look at?

    It seems to me all you are doing is to first articulate an (incoherent) argument then backtrack by issuing nuanced comments, claiming misinterpretation. So what exactly is your argument then? Why highlight the fact that Buffett makes losses if your intent was not to convey the impression that everybody makes mistakes? As far as I can tell, you’re being pedantic about what you did or did not say, or what you actually meant. You seem to be saying that it’s not unreasonable for Temasek to make losses given that not everyone thought they made bad purchases. Perhaps it’s not so much the purchases they are concerned with, but the fact that huge paper losses were realised when Temasek thoughtlessly closed out their positions.

    And you’re saying so long as “not everyone” (or if you can find just a single person) who doesn’t believe Temasek made bad moves then we shouldn’t criticise it? Or what? Oh wait I better not write anything more or else you’ll accuse me yet again of distorting an argument which you have yet to coherently articulate.

    defennder

    July 25, 2009 at 6:06 PM

  9. To DM,

    PN Balaji wrote this in a commentary on Goodyear’s departure from Temasek:

    Ms Ho Ching and her board bet boldly on Mr Goodyear. That bet has gone sour, like its gamble on a couple of Western banks. Temasek’s makeover, an effort Ms Ho Ching has undertaken with gusto, is looking even more problematic.

    Now I suppose you’ll be writing in to Today to protest his disregard of the “wider context”?

    defennder

    July 25, 2009 at 6:33 PM

  10. You said:

    “John Kerry was a Vietnam veteran who was awarded three Purple Hearts; in contrast George W. Bush never served in Vietnam but in the Texan Air National Guard.”

    Your statement is not a one-to-one comparison.

    JK served at sea and GWB served in the air. Both served their country.

    If you would qualify the service of one veteran with that of another veteran, be mindful also of what each has claimed about his service.

    That is the valid comparison. What each claimed. Further, one put his service at the forefront of his campaign acceptance speach while the other did not. Claims of a political nature — in current political credibility — are also legitimately compared in assessing the two as candidates for elected office.

    So, what did GWB claim about his service? And about the relevance of that service to today’s choice of candidates?

    Likewise, JK?

    If you would also supplement those claims with claims made by others — by supporters and by detractors — then it is necessary to state the purpose of comparison of those additional claims in light of the claims of each candidate. In other words, you need to show relevance of the additional claims to the original claims that each man has made about his service and about its significance to the choice of voters.

    Otherwise the additional claims are only so much background noise. If the relevance can be substantiated, then, the additional comparisons can be tested fairly.

    In a televised speach accepting his party’s nomination — and officially launching his campaign as the Democratic nominee — JK strongly emphasized his service in Vietnam and he portrayed that service with specific images and narratives. He “reported for duty” and so made a direct connection between what he did in uniform — necessarily all of what he did — with his candidacy to serve his country as commander-in-chief. The connection between that explicit claim and other claims regarding domestic issues and the like is probably less clear.

    As for the records, which you selected as the actual comparison, JK has not released all of his records which are within his control to do so. That is an underlying condition upon which to assess the weight of the records, thus far released, supporting JK’s claims. But still you need to return to his explicit connection between his service and his campaign to be chosen as President.

    GWB’s claims about his service? Much more modest and low-key. All of his records have been released. These back up his limited claims regarding the choice at hand for voters.

    If the service of either man is to be examined and qualified as better than the service of others — or lesser — then, the criteria for comparison are more extensive and can easily drift into highly subjective areas. If medals or other commendations are highlighted as objective criteria, then, the actions that led to the awarding of such sybmols of merit also come into play. If accounts of special actions — secret missions for example — are made by one or the other candidate, then, it is not a one-way street in which the claim is taken at face value and left unexamined. If the candidate placed special emphasis on such things, then, he, not critics and not supporters, has put such an examination on the table.

    GWB’s modest claims do not include extraordinary stories of secret missions and the like. JK’s host of claims includes such stories and so can be examined in light of the significance he promised they had on his candidacy.

    Is that fair — to assess the claims of candidates based on the connection to the choice voters are asked to make? Sure. Each candidate has such claims totally under his own control. He can make connections as he sees fit. He can qualify his stories with evidence that establishes the connection. Detractors must operate on the same basis — the claims of the candidate are fair game if these connect to the selection of President.

    Did GWB serve his country in uniform? Yes. Flying a jet is no walk in the park. He also volunteered to serve on missions to Vietnam but those missions changed and no longer used the jets he would have flown. What is the connection he has made with that service and his campaign for the presidency? If says his training and experience as a pilot guarding the coast of this country during the Cold War makes him especially qualified as commander-in-chief, then, that’s on the table for examination. He did not go AWOL, but if that is what the JK campaign would imply by JK’s “reporting for duty”, then, JK’s own actions after returning to the US might fairly be put on the table in terms of the Cold War as well.

    The fallacy of false equivalence is a little different that what you described, but in terms of politics, you are not far off the mark.

    In terms of logic, an equivalence is the relationship existing between two statements (or two things) in which they are either both true or both false.

    In terms of a false political equivalence, the assertion of equivalence would imply a spurious, feigned, or incorrect equivalence.

    Also, if the offered equivalence is correct, then, the the relationship between two propositions is that one proposition implies the other and vice versa. To deny one propositon is to deny the other. but to deny one proposition while affirming the other would produce a contradiction. That contradiction means the equivalence is mistaken, untrue, incorrect, counterfeit, or deceptive. And even at that, the assertion of such a false equivalence does not necessarily impugn motive of theperson who made the assertion.

    The contradiction can be produced by error, incompetence, misunderstanding, or, indeed, by deliberate manufacture of an implication known to be false.

    Anonymous

    October 5, 2009 at 9:18 AM

  11. [...] – yet totally pervasive – rhetorical trick in American public life right now is the false equivalence reporters and politicians create between the Right and the Left.  All one has to do to demonize a [...]

  12. [...] and social passions have been inflamed nationally by the poor economy and healthcare reform. One is False Equivalency, which I see both from angry people who identify as centrists, and conservatives squirming away [...]

  13. [...] false equivalence fallacy occurs when someone falsely equates an act by one party as being equally egregious to that of [...]

  14. Anonymous, You take a tack similiar to conspiracy therist in that if one slight peice of information is not absolutelty explained then the whole thing must be false. 911, Roswell,JFK. The reason things may have slightly difference is a matter of perspective of the obeserver, author , or witness not because of fallicy. again it is harder to prove a negative due to the many variants. a psoitive has only one vector.

    Joel

    November 19, 2010 at 5:30 AM

  15. [...] real-life examples. For more information (and some examples that use cuss words) see the article The fallacy of false equivalence by Furry Brown Dog. He does an interesting analysis of the Bush v. Kerry campaign misuse of the [...]

  16. [...] are some good links to articles on the False Equivalence Fallacy: False equivalence : Pharyngula The fallacy of false equivalence Furry Brown Dog Moral equivalence – RationalWiki Box Turtle Bulletin The Fallacy of False Equivalence [...]

  17. Pretty poor partisan example as Kerry’s records were incomplete as he refused to relase the full documentation and we all know the manufactured “evidence” against Bush.
    Great Job!

    stercuilus65

    March 3, 2012 at 3:05 PM


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