The Fallacy of False Equivalence

I was reading a convoluted article in The Nation entitled ‘The Proud Liar Mitt Romney Claimed Today‘ when I came across the phrase ‘the time-honored MSM tactic of false equivalence.’

I never did figure out author Eric Alterman’s reference to ‘MSM.’ Clearly not Methylsulfonylmethane, probably not Manhattan School of Music, even more clearly not Men Who Have Sex With Men. Ironically, Alterman is profiled as ‘a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of Journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.”

But I did think I knew what the Fallacy of False Equivalence means. Or should mean … I looked it up too, of course. I fancy myself a student of rhetoric. I once even wrote a series of articles on rhetoric and persuasive writing. I found no really solid definition.

I think the fallacy of false equivalence is a modern composite re-invention of several older classical fallacies. It also seems to be endemic to political journalism. In my day we were trained to just call these non sequiturs (Latin, “doesn’t follow”).

The general structure of the false equivalence fallacy (and its variants) would have a structure similar to the following:

Deadly nightshade is a member of the potato family. Paprika and chili peppers are members of the same family. We must regard paprika and chili peppers as poisonous.

Or, one of the more family-friendly examples found in a blog by a gentleman named Wally who wrote a 2005 post called Generalized definition of ‘false equivalence’

I didn’t pay you back once when you lent me a dollar, you stole a dollar from my wallet, therefore we’re even.”

What statement actually got The Nation contributor Eric Alterman’s goat?

The most recent punditocracy kerfuffle involves Mitt Romney’s first paid presidential television advertisement. Ironically titled keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.” Deliberately left out of the ad were the preceding words: “Senator McCain’s campaign actually said, and I quote…”

I bring this topic up because we’re going to see a lot more 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 Swift Boat furor, about which I happen to agree with the author: Bush’s stance boiled down to the claim Kerry’s Department of Defense documentation lied, whereas Bush’s anecdotal version was the contextually more accurate if you happened to be serious about voting Republican.

No, it’s not just Republicans. We need to watch election statements more critically, rather than blindly applauding anything which makes our side look better, no matter how egregious the misrepresentation. Non sequitur arguments are so embedded in the political culture that the discerning reader should have no trouble spotting them in either camp. But, as Guardian writer Michael Tomasky posts in his blog Can you play False Equivalency!?:

And no, people, I’m not saying liberals never do anything bad. I am saying (read slowly now): this. is. a. constant. habit. of. conservatives. in. a. way. it. is. not. quite. with. liberals.

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Three Off-Focus News Items

It’s not that we’d like to see these news headlines go away entirely. We’d just like to see them addressed appropriately.

PERRY: Rick Perry’s brain-freeze debate debacle even went viral on YouTube. In truth everybody has “senior moments” like forgetting a word we know we should know, or walking into a room and forgetting why we went there. Fortunately most of us don’t have an opportunity to forget one of our three pet political platforms in front of millions of TV viewers. Even Perry’s admission that “he stepped in it” is symptomatic of the problem here. I’m not a Perry fan and never will be, but Perry inarticulateness isn’t the reason.  If the GOP didn’t like the self-mortification of promoting embarrassing public speakers, it wouldn’t have backed Bush Jr. for two full terms. But if you want confirmation of how common this sort of brain freeze is, check out the interesting New York Times article on Rick Perry’s Brain Freeze.

CAIN: Charges of sexual harassment look bad for Herman Cain, but it’s far from clear whether Cain, his accusers or both sides have the credibility gap. I’ll wait until the facts are aired and sorted out. On a recent road trip I heard most of an LA talk show on this topic. All callers had already arm-chaired the scandal without benefit of the facts, which are still not known, and their “opinions” seemed to depend on whether or not they liked Cain. I don’t like Cain either, but whatever happened to due process and an impartial hearing?

PATERNO: Sacked Penn State coach Joe Paterno, 84, was accused of failing to act on molestation testimony against a formerly respected and long-serving coaching assistant, Jerry Sandusky. University President Graham Spanier was also just fired. Penn State students rioted against the loss of their coach, and presumably out of loyalty to their team. This misplaced at-any-cost “loyalty” is exactly what compounded the scandal in 2002 when college officials suppressed it. I think most of us would prefer to see a serious national inquiry into prevention of institutional child abuse and subsequent cover-up. As for Paterno and Spanier, it happened on their watch and they sandbagged it. The sackings were appropriate. Treating trusted college officials as the victims instead of the kids they betrayed is what’s offensively inappropriate.

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‘Occupy Wall Street’ Protests

BBC News

Looking at the mock US flag displayed by protesters on Wall Street (click thumbnail for BBC graphic), we can see a field of thirty corporate logos in place of the familiar fifty stars. Most of us could come up with a list of fifty “bad” companies, couldn’t we? I can identify most of the thirty: Nike, Coca Cola, AT&T, Wal-Mart, Lilly, GM, Citi, Apple, Google, Fox, Verizon, Warner Brothers, Exxon, Visa, McDonalds, Disney, Pepsi, Ford, NBC, Intel, Master Card, GE, and Microsoft.

In my own humble microcosm of Americana, I don’t find many of the companies I’d personally fancy seeing there. We can all recall consumer protests against Nike, Wal-Mart, Exxon, and McDonalds. But, “do no evil” Google? Apple? These choices leave me baffled. In some political circles there must still be plenty of antipathy for any large US corporation: sized-based discrimination is sometimes still politically correct.

On one score I do sympathize with these protestors’ frustrations. Wall Street screwed the entire country in the events leading up to the global crash of 2008. But it’s never as simple as that, is it? The collapse having been orchestrated with the full oversight and blessing of the SEC, Fed, Moody’s, S&P and most of the Bush Administration, targeting “Wall Street” isn’t precisely accurate. It was the “too big to fail” bankers themselves that provided the mighty engine for a catastrophic recession that went viral across the globe. What the hell were they thinking? Citi certainly deserves its place on the infamy list, but I feel the sterling reputations of Bank of America, Wells Fargo and many others were tarnished by omission.

As I wrote a friend the other day,

In Europe, countries like Greece ruined the banks, but in the US, the banks ruined the country!

In a somewhat personal aside, my best buddy’s dad was a VP in the “old” BofA (think green visor accountant types), and he is probably rolling over in his grave. None of us should be too surprised at the irresponsible greed of the usual Wall Street perps, but what the banks did was criminally insane.

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Bin Laden

I’ve refrained from comment on the May 1 killing of Osama Bin Laden because it’s already one of the most talked-about topics in the world. In his RSS blog feed, New Yorker columnist Hendrik Hertzberg even titled a recent post “Not About Osama! Not About Obama!” His post was about spiral galaxy M51 and the speed of light.

Also, it seems self-evident that Bin Laden has been the world’s most hunted man for almost ten years. Literally “wanted dead or alive”, it was absolutely inevitable that Bin Laden would be killed or captured. Virtually the only question was when the United States would find him.

Bin Laden has had a decade to ponder how he would respond if presented with a choice of death or surrender. He might have died in a rain of bombs upon a Tora Bora type shelter, inflicted by invisible Stealth bombers in the night. He might have died by Predator missile strike, at the risk of “collateral” civilian deaths. But he died in the now-famous surgical strike by U.S. Special Forces, making him a martyr in the eyes of his jihadists. The outcome should surprise few.

BBC reports on a New York Times statement from sons of Osama Bin Laden, saying “the family wanted to know why the al-Qaeda leader had not been captured alive.”

The statement goes on to say “the US decision to bury Bin Laden’s corpse at sea had deprived the family of performing religious rites.”

This sudden family concern for sensitivity rings hollow, when Bin Laden deprived the families of nearly 3,000 innocent civilians of the opportunity to bury their dead, after Bin Laden’s attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

The family also said “We maintain that arbitrary killing is not a solution to political problems and crime’s adjudication as justice must be seen to be done.”

I do personally believe that unilateral strikes on foreign soil, in all but the most dire national emergencies, are an extremely slippery slope. I will leave it to others to debate whether this was a dire national emergency, but I think the evidence shows it was.

While I would like to see our United States reassess this offshore strike strategy, which wins us no friends abroad, I most particularly believe that the Bin Laden family is the very last family on earth with the right to raise questions of equitable solutions to political problems and international war criminals.

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Wikileaks

Wikileaks seems to have become the paparazzi of the diplomatic corps, doing for Hillary Clinton’s world what National Enquirer magazine did for Paris Hilton. I tried at first to ignore the Wikileaks media sensation. Wouldn’t you know, it won’t go away. Some gossipy tidbits are fascinating. Many are potentially embarrassing. Some threaten delicate negotiations, or diplomatic relationships that took years to build. Almost all undermine international confidence in “the system.” Most confirm what we already knew, heard or suspected. How secure were they? The money was not actually kept in bank vaults, but the front door to the bank was thought to be really, really strong. What do these Wikileaks mean, who is responsible for them, and who, ultimately, is accountable for their embarrassing disclosure?

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Egypt Deserves Better from U.S. Senate

A Senate resolution condemning Egypt’s record on human rights and free elections has sparked an aggressive Washington lobbying campaign by the longtime U.S. ally, which argues that the measure could harm the Middle East peace process and its relationship with the United States …

Reports of heavy-handedness under Egyptian President Mubarak are hardly news. The west has long been aware of a spotted human rights record in Egypt, which occasionally lurches outside western comfort zones into abusive security excesses long regarded here as smacking of totalitarianism. We make no apologies for these excesses here, and we cannot possibly minimize the real threats these pose to freedom and democratic process in Egypt.

How bad is it for freedom over there? Continue reading

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Newspapers Tanking

The venerable San Francisco Chronicle may close within weeks.

According to the web article by columnist John Letzing of MarketWatch, The Hearst Corporation, which merged newsroom, publishing and distribution resources of the Chronicle with the SF Examiner in 2001, lost more than $50 million on just this one newspaper last year:
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Reflections on the 44th Inaugural

In the yard of my childhood years, we had an old-fashioned child’s swing. It was not a department store swing set, but a single plank wooden seat, suspended from a massive 4×4 framework by weathered old steel chains. All of this was enclosed in an overgrown arbor of trees and shrubbery. As I grew older, far from outgrowing the swing, I repaired myself to it more often, and spent happy restorative hours just daydreaming. I wondered about the future and what it might hold for me. I wondered also about the future and what it might hold for all of us.

In those years I devoured books on space exploration and science fiction. These depicted an Earth where everybody could explore wherever they wanted. They depicted an Earth where everybody could join in this together. In my world of the mid-1950’s, the idea that everybody could live in harmony – black, brown, red, white, yellow, people of every race and religion – was truly the futuristic domain of science fiction.
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God and Mormon on Pennsylvania Avenue

There it was, over conversation at the restaurant, right after “please pass the pepper”:

“I don’t think I could vote for Romney because he’s a Mormon, and he would have to do what the Mormon Church tells him to do.”

Following that were a litany of concerns about the LDS establishment’s stand on women, gays, blacks, and the very time and personal life of its Saints. There’s the tithing. And the missionary work. And the indisputable historical track record of what happens to members who stand up against the church and its beliefs, or even those who criticise, directly or indirectly, the teachings, traditions, and doctrinal stance of the church.
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White House Defends Waterboarding

(02-06) 13:37 PST WASHINGTON (AP) —

The White House on Wednesday defended the use of the interrogation technique known as waterboarding, saying it is legal — not torture as critics argue — and has saved American lives. President Bush could authorize waterboarding for future terrorism suspects if certain criteria are met, a spokesman said.

We think the White House is probably sincere in its position. And why not? Bush has nothing personally to fear from it. He’s obviously comfortable with the feeling of drowning, he doesn’t know anything, and the globe will be getting used to more water sports anyway.

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