I often tell my undergraduates (and by often I mean just about daily) that if I could have the power to change one thing about the educational system it would be to require every single college student to take and pass a class in formal logic. There's nothing that drives me up a wall quite like soon-to-be adults making "arguments" that make no sense and citing "evidence" that does not prove what they think it proves. To wit, let me give you an actual quote from a senior's research paper:

Since 1980 the rate of abortions per 100,000 adult women in the United States has fallen annually, indicating that more women are choosing abstinence and rejecting behaviors that contribute to unplanned pregnancies.

Right. Or it might indicate that people are using birth control more regularly. Or that the ratio of older women to younger women is increasing thanks to the aging baby-boomers and the Let's Wait on Having Kids attitude of Generation X. Or it could mean absolutely nothing at all – correlation does not imply causation.

My point is not to pick on this student. In fact, his/her writing was easy on my eyes and the argument was generally well-formed. But this is a glaring example of why it's so goddamn difficult to have a conversation in our society these days: so many people simply don't understand what (if anything) their facts "prove", and as a result they are apt to wildly overestimate it. They take a fact that, in their mind, proves their point and just keep repeating it to you, the big dummy who doesn't seem to understand how thoroughly they're supporting their position.

So here's what I'm going to do. Ginandtacos will be the forum for a semi-regular (meaning intermittent and/or whenever a particularly good example in the news presents itself) discussion of fallacies of formal logic. I can't watch or read the news for 10 minutes without some idiotic piece of reasoning that an 18 year-old philosophy student could refute, so I'll draw heavily on our friends in the mass media for assistance.

Today I'm starting with False Equivalency (with a hat tip to Vagabond Scholar). I start with it because it has quickly risen from obscurity to be among the most pervasive of the fallacies in little more than a decade (coincidentally enough, since Fox News went on the air 24-7). False Equivalency is, in plain language, the idea that two (or more) opposing viewpoints/alternatives are undeservedly treated as equally important or valid. FE has become such an enormous problem in contemporary discourse for two simple reasons:

  • 1. The media, supposedly in pursuit of "objectivity", give equal credence (and airtime) to pairs of "opposing" events when they are in fact decidedly unequal. The best example is the Fox News standby: if we gave 2 minutes of airtime to the Anti-War Rally (attendance: 200,000) then in the interest of Fairness and Balance we have to give 2 minutes of airtime to Charlie Daniels and the 35 hillbillies who staged a Support the Troops rally on the other side of town.

  • 2. Because the media are so addicted to the Left vs. Right Pundit Battle format, they regularly present opposing sides without noting the imbalance of evidence between them. The result is that supremely idiotic positions are given equal time with fact-based ones. See, isn't it "fair" and "objective" how we gave equal airtime to this scientist with mountains of evidence and this wingnut just making shit up off the top of his head? Imagine, for example, if they decided to debate the shape of the Earth. There are some people (1 in a few hundred million) who believe that the Earth is flat – and no tangible evidence supports that claim. It would therefore be a False Equivalency to devote 5 minutes of airtime to a Flat-Earther debating a scientist about Earth's roundness. As the late, great Molly Ivins said:

    The American press has always had a tendency to assume the truth must lie exactly halfway between any two opposing points of view. Thus, if the press present the man who says Hitler is an ogre and the man who says Hitler is a prince, it believes it has done the full measure of its duty.

    This tendency has been aggravated in recent years by a noticeable trend to substitute people who speak from a right-wing ideological perspective for those who know something about a given subject. Thus we see…people who don't know jack-shit about Iran or Nicarauga or arms control, but who are ready to tear up the peapatch in defense of the proposition that Ronald Reagan is a Great Leader beset by com-symps. They have nothing to offer in the way of facts or insight; they are presented as a way of keeping the networks from being charged with bias.

    Here's an excellent example of FE in action, courtesy of Bush Family Friend and Fox News host Brit Hume as he debates Mort Kondracke about climate change:

    KONDRACKE: Just a second! The head of the National Academy of Science– today, I talked to him– pointed me in the direction of testimony that he's delivered before Congress, which says that there is an overwhelming consensus among his colleagues, and he is an earth scientist, that global warming is a fact, that man is responsible for it and that the sun is not responsible. There's been a lot of study–

    HUME: But Mort, is– doesn't– isn't what, isn't scientific consensus what you turn to when you don't have scientific fact?


    HUME: In other words, you haven't established it?

    KONDRACKE: No. No, the–

    HUME: Well, is this scientific fact?

    KONDRACKE: Look, how are we supposed to determine what scientific fact is–

    HUME: Mort, that's what the scientific method is for. Let me move on to Nina, just to get her–

    KONDRACKE: You get thousands of scientists and if they all agree– if 90 percent–

    HUME: That's not science, Mort, that's a vote. That's an election.

    Note how Hume implicitly treats the opposing viewpoints on global warming as equals. He disregards the fact that an overwhelming mountain of evidence supports one viewpoint, and nothing but Exxon-funded AEI papers from paycheck-hungry scientists long disregarded as cranks by their colleagues support the other. Would Hume, as an appropriate analogy would suggest, say it is merely an "election" or opinion poll that 99.9% of astronomers argue that the Sun is made of hydrogen? Sure, they have assloads of physical evidence, but doggone it none of them have really been to the sun. So aren't they just guessing? Isn't that little more than an opinion poll? In fact, let's welcome our next guest: Joe Blow, a scientist (and failed tenure case) who argues that the sun was actually made by Jews and consists mostly of marshmallows.

    I sincerely doubt that Brit Hume intended to use the exact same logic as Holocaust Denialists routinely use (just because 99.99999% of historians agree that it happened doesn't mean it happened, regardless of their miles of records and evidence) but, sadly, that's exactly what Brit Hume did. That's the moral of the Fox News story, kids – if right-wingers can find one person who disagrees, then the issue is completely open for debate and all options are on the table. Doesn't matter if the scientists who believe global warming exists outnumber those who don't by about 10,000:1. The right-wing media machine will Nobly defend Free Speech and champion oppressed minority viewpoints by giving that single skeptic as much attention as his 10,000 opponents.

    Keep today's post in mind the next time you watch cable news. I think you'll be shocked at just how little you'll need to watch before you identify clear examples of this fallacy in action. (PS: Any logicians or philosophers want to guest-post about a favorite fallacy, just let me know in comments)



      Of course, by that, I mean – thank you for drawing attention to an absolutely essential problem with American education, and for this very valuable and reasoned discussion of a common and frustrating that one finds all too often in the popular media.

      I humbly request the opportunity to guest-post on your totally awesome blog.

    • I am not a logician, nor do I play one on TV, but this is ^5 worthy stuff. I got hooked on logic puzzles as a kid, thank you Uncle John, and logic just seemed to stay with me.

      I 'hang out' on some forums and for illogic there is no better source. So, I found this website: http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/index.html#index

      When someone makes a particularly asshat argument, I don't even respond. I just give them the link to the fallacy they just created.

      Pisses them off quite nicely.

    • We're trying to institute a Logic & Rhetoric class at the high school. Unfortunately we're pretty understaffed for next year–but in 2009 it might show up. I'm pulling for it to be a graduation requirement class open to juniors and seniors.

      My favorite logical fallacy is the one where students think that because half the class didn't do what they were instructed to do (ie, bring a pen to class, complete their homework, etc), that I should *reward* the half that fulfilled the basic requirement, rather than, like, I don't know, PUNISHING THE ONES WHO FAILED TO DO WHAT THEY WERE SUPPOSED TO DO. Sigh. Nice try, asshats.

    • Great post. And the Right uses FE not just in terms of (il)logical arguments but in analogies too. They can elevate or denigrate or dismiss their target by the historical comparisons they choose. I.e. Bush is like FDR in that he is the son of privilege. Torture is like horseplay, in that it involves, what? Physical contact between two bodies? In this way, false equivalence is very much their rhetorical bread and butter.

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