Propaganda Prop # 8: False Equivalence

Imbalance concept. Black scales with red sphere and cube.

In a video making the rounds on the Internet not long ago,  an interviewer asks several science-minded individuals why they believe in evolution and not creationism, and coaxes them into saying that it is essentially because science is based on observable evidence, while religion is based on pure belief.  He then innocently observes that, hey, evolutionists discuss events that supposedly happened millions of years ago, and you can’t witness them since they were so far in the past; so why is that better than believing things you can’t see that supposedly happened thousands of years ago, or that happen on some spiritual plane of existence? By suggesting that putting faith in physical evidence is as arbitrary as putting faith in dogma,  he was slyly invoking false equivalence, the eighth in our series of propaganda tools.

A false equivalence, as the name suggests, is comparing or equating things that are not appropriately similar. (“The First Amendment applies to the Internet even though it hadn’t been invented when the Constitution was written; so the Second Amendment gives me the right to own an AK-47.”) This tactic is often labeled false analogy, which theoretically could be classified as something different: a false equivalence is saying that two related but dissimilar things are essentially the same, while a false analogy is saying that two unrelated things are comparable (“You cheat at solitaire, so you have no right to criticize me for being a racist.”). But in practice, the distinction is often so slight and so difficult to pinpoint that it’s really no false equivalence to just consider them interchangeable.

Quite often, the F.E. seems to be a valid analogy at first blush, but if you examine it more closely, you see that the subtle distinctions are actually quite substantial. It isn’t necessarily that the differences are more numerous than the similarities, but they are more significant. In the photo above, the two objects have certain things in common: e.g., they are both regular geometric solids, they are both shiny, they are both smooth, and they are both red. But clearly they are not the same.  One is a cube and one is a sphere. One is heavier than the other. It may be that they are different sizes, or made of different materials,  or that the cube is hollow. In any case, the differences literally outweigh the similarities.

Recently when discussing vegetarianism, I made an allusion to my 40 years of personal experience with the topic, and someone remarked that I might as well cite 40 years of faith healing or psychic work as proof that those activities are valid.  The point was that all of them involve anecdotal evidence; but the anecdotal evidence is being used in very different ways. And it’s a false equivalence for at least three reasons.

First, as I perhaps should have made more clear, my “experience” is not limited to my own vegetarianism, but to my having read about, met and talked to, literally hundreds of other vegetarians, and to having done a great deal of research on the topic.  Second, it’s a comparison between the purely hypothetical and intangible — i.e., psychic powers and faith healing — and the tangible and demonstrable; diet definitely does have an effect on health, and there’s ample evidence that a vegetarian diet can have a positive effect. Third and most important, unlike the psychic and the faith healer, I’ve never cited my personal experience/research as “proof” of anything; on the contrary, I suggest that it’s reason to doubt conventional wisdom — i.e., that consuming meat is necessary for good health. (Which is to say that when you have a premise that doing thing A invariably produces result B, yet you have hundreds of random individuals who’ve been doing A for years with results consistently the opposite of B, it might be prudent to examine your premise a little more closely.)

It’s very easy to drift into those murky waters, because we all like to make comparisons — they help illustrate, clarify and amplify. But no two things are exactly alike; so it can be a bit tricky to determine where to draw the line between appropriate and inappropriate analogy. Sometimes, then, the false equivalence is a sincere logical fallacy rather than an attempt to deceive. In many cases, however, the analogist steps blatantly over the line; even when not doing so deliberately, he/ she does so as part of an overall inclination to distort in order to attack or defend a particular position.

The interviewer in the video may or may not have been intentionally dissembling, but he definitely was operating under a false premise: namely, that religious authorities are at least as qualified to speak about science as are scientific authorities. This stems from the great fundamentalist fallacy that religious texts should be interpreted as literally as scientific texts. But in fact, religion and science are two totally different spheres of cognition — two different languages, if you will. Those who understand this can be both scientific and religious if they so choose. Those who don’t are likely either to condemn religion as being unscientific (its actually nonscientific) or condemn science as being “blasphemous”.

False equivalence is often invoked in discussions of religion. One popular motif is to maintain that the absence of faith is itself a sort of faith. A few years ago, there was even a movement among the Christian Right to have “secular humanism” officially declared a religion, so that it would be a violation of the principle of the separation of church and state to enact secularist policies such as prohibiting school-enforced prayer. Cute.

Of course, this was a political maneuver as much as a religious one, and you’ll certainly encounter plenty of false equivalence in discussions about politics and current events. Turn on the talking heads and before a quarter of an hour has elapsed,  chances are you will have heard at least one faulty comparison.

One of the most popular manifestations is the “both sides do it” narrative,  which sometimes manifests as the tu quoque — Latin for “you too”, a fancy way of saying that it takes one to know one.  As you might imagine, I get that one thrown at me quite a bit. (“You’re a propagandist yourself”. “You’re promoting your own causes.” “You’re using straw men and cherry picking while accusing other people of doing the same.” Etc, etc, etc. Which is a clear indication that someone either is distorting my words or is confused about the concept in question.)  Sometimes a tu quoque is a valid point; quite often, it’s just a knee-jerk attack from someone who feels that he/ she absolutely must attack, but really has nothing to say.

The “both sides do it” is my favorite specimen of false equivalence because it offers so many possible applications. Accordingly, I’ll be devoting a separate discussion to it in the near future.

No examination of false equivalence is complete without some mention of the very popular “reductio ad Hitlerum” — the tendency to summon up the specter of Der Fuhrer to stand beside anyone you don’t like.  If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard this one, I’d be as powerful as Hitler.

The fact is, nobody is really like Hitler. That’s what makes him such an effective illustration but such an ineffective and inappropriate benchmark. Sometimes someone may have something in common with Hitler in a very small way (you may know lots of short, dark-haired former painters who speak German), but never to the extent that fiery rhetoricians suggest. A Hitler analogy is almost always out of line.

That being said, we also should acknowledge that the over-sensitization to Hitler analogies has created its own problems. Sometimes you might hear an exchange like this:

Mr. Smith: You’re very firm in your beliefs, but that isn’t always a good thing. The Nazis were firm in their beliefs, too.

Mr. Jones: There you go, comparing us to Nazis and comparing me to Hitler.

Smith did no such thing, of course. He gave Hitler his proper treatment: as the ultimate extreme we all should avoid, and a powerful illustration of what excesses firmness of conviction can lead to. It is Jones who is making the false equivalence. This is a propagandaphile’s delight: a false equivalence about a false equivalence.

Missionary Zeal, Tender Toes, and a Modest Proposal

Bumper stickers

America is a nation of missionaries.  Not necessarily in the religious sense, although certainly there are plenty of scrubbed young men in white shirts and ties going around pounding on doors. But there are also many other causes that people are passionately attempting to recruit for. It has become a national trend for just about any conviction or set of values to be an object of religious fervor and persuasion. Just look at all the billboards, bumper stickers and Facebook soapbox updates.

Being a nonreligious person, I’ve always been lectured by Good Christians about how I’m going to hell if I don’t adopt their beliefs.  As a vegetarian, I’ve been lectured by meat devourers about how I’m going to wither away if I don’t get some animal flesh into my system, and just who do I think I am for not liking hamburgers anyway. (You might think that vegetarians are more likely to preach; but if my own experience and observation are any indication, it’s carnivores by a landslide.) As a gunless citizen, I’ve been lectured by gun fanatics about how they have a constitutional right to own guns, and guns make us safer, and I’m being anti-American by questioning either tenet. As an essentially apolitical person who’s only voted twice in my life, I’m lectured by “conservatives” about how if I love my country and want to save it from certain destruction and save us all from certain enslavement, I have to vote Republican. (Democrats also have their missionary element, of course; but it’s not nearly as extreme, as abrasive, as apocalyptic, or as deranged.)

That missionary zeal is often accompanied by a strong identification with the values in question, to the extent that when someone is opposed to those values, the zealot feels that his/ her intelligence or integrity is being impugned. Which is to say, if you reject someone’s religion, politics or whatever, they take it as a personal insult, or react as if you’d raped the Statue Of Liberty. Quite often you don’t even have to criticize; all you have to do is fail to live by someone else’s principles, and that will be interpreted as stepping on someone’s toes.  American ideological fanaticism seems to be connected to the world’s most tender toes.

But this phenomenon is not limited to ideology. It also spills over to personal preferences of any kind, such as taste in music or TV shows. When I was a film critic, it was not unheard of to receive death threats for panning the wrong movies.  And then, God yes, there’s sports.  Spectators have been known to attack and even kill each other over soccer matches or Little League games. In 2011, a baseball fan wearing San Francisco Giants attire to a game at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles was jumped by two men in the parking lot who brutally beat him and left him unconscious – he spent several weeks in a coma and was left permanently disabled. Not to be outdone, some Giants fans got into an altercation with Dodger fans outside a bar near the San Francisco stadium, and one of the latter was fatally stabbed.

Which brings us to the real problem: missionary zeal sometimes morphs into crusader zeal; in which case the zealot is no longer content to convert or assert by persuasion, but resorts to force. On those two or three occasions in the past when I tried sporting bumper stickers myself, I had people throwing eggs and lighted cigars at my vehicle, and honking as they drove past so I’d be certain to observe them presenting their middle digits for inspection.

How did we get to this point? Is it the fast-pace, intensely competitive, angst-ridden contemporary lifestyle aggravated by the threat of terrorism? Is it confusion, alienation, and/ or just plain boredom? Is it an impressionable public whipped into an irrational froth by trash-talking media? Well, perhaps, but there’s certainly nothing new about being patronizing and/or antagonist toward The Others. There was a time when “heretics” could be horrifically tortured and murdered for deviating even one hair’s breadth from official religious dogma.  This kind of savage behavior has been around for a long time. Still, it seems likely that whatever remnants of it linger in modern American culture are either exacerbated by Limbaughism, or else Limbaughism just makes it appear worse than it really is. Or both.

Sorry to break the news, but the world is not holding its breath to hear your beliefs and convictions. Other people have their own, and are none too eager to have them compromised. If we lived in a rational world, people would gather all the information they could before committing to a belief. This is not a rational world. And most people first decide what to believe, then zero in on facts that seem to support the belief, while tuning out those that don’t.

Gun enthusiasts are not interested in hearing that guns mostly just create the illusion of safety — or that the so-called “constitutional right” to be armed is founded not on what the Second Amendment actually says, but on a highly subjective speculation about what the framers were thinking when they wrote it. “Pro-life” activists don’t want to hear that banning abortion is ineffective and probably even counterproductive. Climate science deniers and anti-vaxxers aren’t interested in scientific or medical research (except the “research” pushed by crackpots and quacks). Fox “News” devotees don’t want to hear that they’re being played like a cheap fiddle at a barn dance.

If and when people decide it’s time to reevaluate their convictions, they’ll do so without being prompted. In the meantime, there is nothing to be gained by telling them what idiots they are for not seeing eye to eye with you. Proselytizing is pointless unless the recipients are ready to make a change, and you just happen to be offering the change they’re looking for. (Actual missionaries tend to target people who are so desperate they’re willing to try just about anything.)

Which is why this blog is addressed to an audience of fellow skeptics, iconoclasts and freethinkers rather than an audience of die-hard ideologues or even the general public. My purpose is just to present information and ideas for people who might be interested. I have little interest in trying to change anyone’s mind about anything — I know how futile the attempt is. I have no cause to promote except uncovering the truth.

But surely it won’t be a contradiction of that directive to make a modest proposal with regard to both preachiness and thin-skinned toes: just lay off already, will ya? Why do you feel you have to let people know if you are offended by whatever they say about your beliefs and preferences? Why do you have to feel offended at all? How exactly do their words have any impact on you? Either they’re right, in which case you should reflect rather than react; or they’re wrong, in which case they’re exposing their own ignorance rather than any flaw of yours; or they’re neither right nor wrong, in which case you’re just two people agreeing to disagree, which is one thing that made America great.

And why would you feel that the rest of the world is entitled to your opinion? Perhaps you should consider that your own life is your best PR. In other words, if your values and convictions are really as great as you think they are, it will show; people can’t help noticing, so you don’t have to bring it to their attention.

Whatever your cause may be, you’re not helping it any by smearing it in people’s faces. Or by throwing a hissy fit when someone fails to go along with it.

This Is Not Satire


The above photo was not intended to be humorous. Nor was the advertising copy accompanying it, though both appear to have been lifted from a Saturday Night Live skit or an Onion article. Both photo and text are part of an earnest promotion for a product called… (wait for it)… Thunderware. It’s a handy little item designed to give you a real sense of security by packing heat in your meat. The text reads in part:

The weapon is worn in the front, on the centerline. This way it will not interfere with normal or rigorous activity. When you sit down, the weapon fits down comfortably between your legs. “Sensitive” body parts are behind the bulk of the weapon. … Be as active as you want. You’ll never have to adjust your holster.

I know what you’re thinking. But I assure you, it only sounds like it was written by Tina Fey.

It’s the perfect gift for the guy who has everything, and wants to protect it. Or the guy who wants to pretend he has more than he does. Or, as the photo suggests, the gal who wishes she had something to pretend with too.  Or, as the photo also suggests, the guy who wants to impress the gals who wish they did.

Gun fanatics often bristle at the suggestion that their attachment to their hardware has phallic connotations of one kind or another. And then they turn around and market a product called Thunderware with ads like this. With a perfectly straight face.