False Equivalence

A type of informal fallacy where there is an ostensible similarity between two things, but, on closer examination, are in fact not equivalent. The two things may share something in common with one another, but they have significant, often subtle, differences that are overlooked to strengthen the argument.

Logical Form

  • [insert thing, event, etc. here] has characteristics a, b, and c.

  • Another [insert thing, event, etc. here] has characteristics b and e.

  • Therefore, since both share a characteristic b, they are equivalent.


Note, in everyday use, the similarity between characteristic(s) need not be exact for the fallacy to be committed. For example, comparing a beard to a mustache in order to draw an equivalence between Hitler and Jesus. That said, you must pay close attention to the comparison(s) being used within the argument. If the argument draws on comparisons to support a reasonable conclusion, then it is not a false equivalency. 

Apples to Oranges I.png

Examples

1)

  • Apples and Oranges are both fruit and they're both round.

  • Therefore, they must taste the same.


Explanation: The fact that Apples and Oranges are both fruit and that they're round (i.e., they are equivalent in these characteristics) doesn't necessarily mean that they are then going to taste the same. From everyday experience, we know that Apples and Oranges do not taste the same.


2)

  • Both Hitler and Stalin were atheists as well as being horrible people.

  • Ergo, atheists are horrible people.


Explanation: While true that both Stalin and Hitler were atheists and horrible people, this doesn't mean that all atheists are horrible people. There are a confluence of characteristics beyond theism or atheism that directs an individual on how they choose to live their life.

3) Politics is generally full of false equivalences. For example, in the United States, there are the Democrats and the Republicans where those who lean Democratic tend to be more liberal in their worldview versus those who lean more conservative and generally identify as Republican. Both parties have their extremes that are often referred to as the “radical/far left” or the “radical/far right.” Often times, you will hear the following comment in political commentary:

  • The far left is just as bad as the far right these days because of similarities x, y, and z.


Explanation: Now, on the surface, this will appear as a perfectly reasonable argument depending on what x, y and z are. However, on closer inspection, you begin to realize that this is fundamentally a false equivalence. Why? Because the individuals that compose the far-left are not equally as problematic to society as those that compose the far-right. More specifically, if we choose Antifa (i.e. “ant-fascists”) as a representative group from the far-left and Neo-Nazis from the far-right, on one side, you have a group dedicated to stopping fascism – yes, they are known for violence at times and can be anti-capitalist – versus a group who openly spreads antisemitism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and overall hate towards anyone who isn't a white male. Regardless of what x, y, and z is, these two groups are clearly not equivalent in their negative impact on society.

4)

  • Creationism and Evolution both explain how humans have come to be.

  • Thus, both should be taught to our children in school.


Explanation: While it is true that both offer explanations for the genesis of humanity, only Evolution is rooted in science, while the other is purely dogma. Scientists have decades of evidence supporting the Theory of Evolution and it is so well supported at this point that it is also considered a fact [1]. Conversely, Creationism does not have a shred of evidence to support its assertions and only persists due to religion and peoples' willingness to believe the impossible in the name of faith.


Conclusion


As is always the case, if you find yourself confronted with this fallacy in everyday discourse, it is important to remember that it renders the argument bad and should be rejected. What is more, if you find yourself using this fallacy within one of your own arguments, as an individual who ascribes to the ethos of Critical Thinking, you must replace it with a good argument.


References

[1] Gregory, T.R. Evo Edu Outreach (2008) 1: 46. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12052-007-0001-z