The fallacy of false equivalence
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.
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.