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.

Matters Of Opinion: The Triumph of Passionate, Ignorant and Irrational Conviction in America

Buckley and Vidal

Back in 1968, ABC News did something really revolutionary. It made opinionated commentary the centerpiece of its evening newscast.  Because, as its anchors explained in announcing the stunning innovation, opinion was something that had been sorely missing from news coverage. (We’ll pause while you catch your breath.) It wasn’t the first time commentary had been used on newscasts, of course; but ABC’s bold move in programming at this particular time proved to be groundbreaking, the opening of what many consider a Pandora’s box of domination by opinion.

It was perhaps an ideal time to try such an experiment, an explosive year at the height of the Vietnam conflict and the civil rights movement, with vociferous student protests and other civil unrest, a presidential election, violent clashes between police and civilians in Chicago, and the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.

As part of its fare, ABC  made an honest attempt at being fair and balanced by featuring frequent debates between the preeminent voices of “conservatism” and “liberalism” : William Buckley and Gore Vidal. At one point the affectedly suave, urbane and unflappable Mr. Buckley became so flustered that he threatened to “sock you right in the goddamn mouth”  — not the only time he threatened to punch out a debating opponent — and suggested that the “queer”  stick with his “pornography”, a reference to Vidal’s racy novel Myra Breckenridge. (And it’s an illuminating comment on American culture, such as it is, to note that when Buckley’s tirade aired, the network censors bleeped out only the word “God”.)

ABC’s revolutionary new format was short-lived, but it left a lasting impression; commentary remained a standard feature of its newscasts, and other networks followed suit. While network officials may have been rather uneasy about the way Buckley and Vidal clawed at each other like rival faction leaders in a schoolyard, the public ate it up. One might argue that 1968 helped pave the way for George Putnam and Wally George and Morton Downey Jr. and Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck etc., etc., etc., etc,, planting the seeds for the “infotainment” establishment so prevalent today in media coverage of current events.

Today, opinion is the coin of the realm in the public forum. People believe  not only that it’s important for them to have an opinion about everything, but that it’s urgent to express it, and that the world has an obligation to deem it of great importance. Everybody has a blog, and everybody comments on everyone else’s blog, and Facebooks and Tweets every little reaction they have to every little thing. In theory, there’s something healthy about this unprecedented level of exchange; but read the discussions on many of these blogs and you’ll almost always see them degenerate into catty, juvenile bickering that benefits no one. (I have to remain vigilant to prevent that from happening even here.)

It’s also a great irony that when we have such a phenomenally unprecedented source of knowledge as the Internet, it’s so often used to promote and reinforce pre-existing beliefs.  If you have concerns about the safety of vaccines, you can pull up all the legitimate research you’d ever want in a matter of minutes; instead, people often just Google-channel Jenny McCarthy.

I recently saw an online poll about whether people think Michelle Obama’s attire aboard Air Force One was disgraceful. Seriously, people? This is how you choose to spend the precious hours of your life that will never come again? Yet however frivolous such a discussion may be, it is at least a genuine matter of opinion, as there are no absolute standards about what a first lady should wear while traveling.  All too often, there’s a public avalanche of opinion about topics that aren’t matters of opinion, such as evolution. Evolution is a scientific fact, and none of your opinions (yes, including your opinions about the meaning and significance of biblical passages) will alter the reality one whit. It can be interesting and illuminating to discuss the facts; but trying to discredit them with opinion is like trying to conceal the Grand Canyon under a napkin.

We’re awash with opinion, drowning in opinion. Americans have become intoxicated with the notion  that opinion is inherently interesting. But opinions are only as interesting as the facts or ideas they’re attached to; and all too often, both are sorely absent.

Case in point: game show host Pat Sajak recently generated a great deal of free publicity that his career desperately needed when he tweeted the following:

I now believe global warming alarmists are unpatriotic racists knowingly misleading for their own ends. Good night.

He later insisted he was just joking, but the purpose of the “joke” was to ruffle the feathers of the “alarmists” (i.e. scientists and those who support their work). No explanation of how he acquired greater knowledge of science than scientists — apparently from years of watching Vanna White play with the alphabet — but anyone who challenges him is, if not an “unpatriotic racist”, at least an “alarmist” and a “liberal”. Opinion is supreme, and fact mustn’t dare infringe upon it.

That selfsame Bill Buckley who yearned to settle differences of opinion pugilistically also once commented that

“Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views.”

This remark is touted by his disciples as a clever putdown of “liberals”, but it actually betrays a common problem among “conservatives”. No, I don’t mean that it often seems their greatest joy in life is attacking them librulz, though that’s certainly a consideration. I’m referring to a common fallacy they exhibit or pretend to: the premise that respecting other people’s beliefs would entail presuming that all beliefs are created equal. Just because I respect your right to believe that AIDS is caused by peanut butter doesn’t mean that I’m going to take such a belief seriously. And it sure as hell doesn’t mean that I’m going to stand by idly while you try to make such a belief the cornerstone of public policy.

“Conservatives” have a habit of pushing for policy based on passionate beliefs that are unfounded at best, and often ill-informed, irrational and sometimes squarely in collision with solid fact and even their own convictions. These include the following: that capital punishment deters crime; that aggressive warmongering discourages aggressive warmongering; that having more guns makes us safer and an armed society is a polite society and citizens use guns to prevent millions of crimes a year ; that homosexuality  is both an illness and a voluntary “lifestyle”; that creationism is a substitute for science; that outlawing abortion will reduce its incidence, and doing so makes a person “pro-life”; that “Obamacare” is “socialized medicine”; that Ronald Reagan won the Cold War; that government assistance to the needy encourages indolence, while government assistance to the wealthy encourages industriousness; that the U.S. was intended to be a Christian nation and God is on our side and Christian morality is more moral than everyone else’s morality.

Their only “evidence” for such beliefs is that somebody else said that somebody else said so.  Yet they want these tenets not only to be treated as the equals of fact-based beliefs, but given unquestioned supremacy — if you dare request some substantiation, they are likely to play the “liberal intolerance” card just as Buckley did. (Technically, there’s a distinction between belief and opinion, but the two are so closely allied; and neither is synonymous with fact. Fact: “Gravity exists”. Opinion: “Gravity is unfair”. Belief : “Gravity is a liberal conspiracy”.)

And oh yes, there’s the matter of global warming. Having an opinion about global warming is like having an opinion about the boiling point of water or  the number of days in a week. You either know the facts or you don’t. You either accept them or you don’t. Opinion is superfluous and irrelevant.  But that doesn’t prevent Pat Sajak from drawing his brilliant conclusions. Or Sean Hannity from saying “global warming is a myth, in my opinion.” At least these two had the decency  to acknowledge, in these particular instances, that they were merely expressing an opinion. Not so with James Inhofe, perennial senator from Oklahoma, who called climate change

the second-largest hoax ever played on the American people, after the separation of church and state

And this, mind you, is a person who is in a position to shape legislation, a person whom the citizens of Oklahoma have voted into office repeatedly. Again, there’s no hint as to why Hannity’s or Inhofe’s opinions on such a topic should matter. We just know that they should somehow — apparently to a very great degree.

There are many subjects that I’m not an expert on; so when discussing such subjects, I’ll gladly defer to people who know more about them than I do. Which is why you’ll never hear me join the Sajak/ Hannity/ Inhofe chorale in proclaiming global warming a “myth” or “hoax”.  Am I suggesting that you never should question authority? Not at all. But quite often there’s a difference between authority and expert. George W. Bush was the ultimate authority on this planet for 8 long years. But he never exhibited expertise in anything except lies and deception, mangling the English language, destroying international goodwill, and magically transforming black ink to red. And he also. by the way, behaved, like many other “conservatives”, as if he considered scientific truth negotiable, heavily subjugating it to political ideology.

By all means, question authority if you feel so inclined. But if that also entails challenging the experts in their own fields, you’d better be armed with a lot more than opinion. You’d better have a level of knowledge at least equal to theirs. That is, if you don’t want to make a Sajak of yourself.

Do you really care if I believe that Bogota is the capital of Peru, or that the Baltimore Orioles won the American League pennant in 1944? Then why should you care what Pat Sajak or Sean Hannity or James Inhofe thinks about global warming? Or Pat Robertson thinks about evolution? Or Alex Jones thinks about government policy? Or Sarah Palin thinks about… well, anything?

The correct answers are (a) Lima — Bogota is in Columbia; (b) the St. Louis Browns, who did not become the Baltimore Orioles until a few years later; (c) it’s very real; (d) likewise; (e) he’s long overdue to be fitted for a new white jacket, and (f) she has achieved an extraordinary level of ignorance on a wide range of topics.

Those are the verifiable facts. Any contradictory opinions are probably — in my opinion, at least — a big waste of your time.

25 Things You’re Supposed to Believe (Because You’re Just Supposed to Believe, So Shut Up and Don’t Ask Questions)

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1. The U.S. is in every way vastly superior to every other nation on earth. And we’re God’s favorite.

2. Everyone deserves his or her financial status, whether rich or poor. If you work hard enough, you’ll be successful, and if you’re poor, you’re just lazy. The only rich people who are just lucky are Hollywood celebrities, who are pampered airheads totally out of touch with the real world. (Except for Chuck Norris.)

3. Giving a pittance in handouts to the poor encourages dependency and is a major burden to taxpayers; giving billions in handouts to the rich encourages industriousness and is good for the economy. If we take care of the rich first, it will trickle down to everyone else.

4. The Confederacy was a noble cause, and the Civil War was inevitable. It was really about states’ rights rather than slavery.

5. The bombing of Japan was necessary to end the war, and it saved more lives than it destroyed.

6. The Democratic Party is the party of tax and spend, and the Republican Party is the party of fiscal restraint.

7. Eating meat makes you strong and healthy.

8. Ronald Reagan won the cold war, and brought about the downfall of the Soviet Union.

9. The Founding Fathers were all Christian, and intended the U.S. to be a Christian nation.

10. Islam is a more violent religion than Christianity.

11. It’s impossible to have a moral compass without religion.

12. It’s easy to read and understand the Bible; the English translations we have are very accurate.

13. Trying to guarantee equality of economic opportunity is the same as trying to guarantee equality of economic achievement; and it’s socialist/ communist/ fascist/ whateverist.

14. Capital punishment deters crime.

15. Outlawing abortion is an effective way to prevent it.

16. Pro-choice is the same as pro-abortion.

17. The Second Amendment gives you the right to own a gun.

18. Firearm regulation (“gun control”) means trying to outlaw guns.

19. Evolution means that humans descended from apes; and it’s only a theory.

20. Secularism means suppression of religious freedom.

21. There is an “invisible hand” guiding the economy, and if we just leave it alone, everything will turn out fine on its own.

22. Regulation of business practices is an unwarranted interference in free enterprise, and is socialist/ communist./ fascist/ whateverist.

23. Sex education just gives kids ideas that they’d never be able to think of otherwise; what really works is to tell kids to just say no.

24. “Political correctness” is a totalitarian mindset that squashes free speech.

25. There is a “liberal” bias to American media.