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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Pieces of Eight

I e-mailed the letter below to Stereophile magazine this afternoon. Normally, I do post audio and digital audio content to Computers. This thread has little to do with digital audio, and a lot to do with commentary and the rules of the road.

I would violate my own terms of service (TOS) if I posted this in Computers because it hijacks a thread that, by rights, should have been about digital audio. Also, my letter cites the same cuss word I’m writing Stereophile about (another TOS violation). So, the questionable word is expertly edited out so that you could hardly recognize it.
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Rhetoric 001

Smoke and Mirrors: Protecting Yourself from Time-Honored Fallacies.

A rhetoric primer.

The Internet has brought a resurgence of instant and universal public dialog. No longer is it necessary (or even possible) to walk down to the town square or commons. No longer do families huddle around the household radio to hear the great scheduled debates. Today, one can walk from the dinner table to the PC keyboard and plunge instantly into crude or sophisticated debates over most any topic in the world.
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