Tag Archives: equivocations

Calling Fallacies by their Proper Names

In the wake of Trump’s false analogy between the behavior of the neo-Nazis and the antifa counter-protesters in Charlottesville, there has been a good bit of criticism of the point.  However, the term used in criticism has consistently been that he ‘equivocated’ the two.  Here’s the headline at the Daily Beast:

Netanyahu’s Cynical Delay Denouncing Trump’s Nazi Equivocation

Other outlets have used the term ‘equivocation’ for the error, too.  CNN has consistently termed the error an ‘equivocation.’   Today:

… the moral equivalency and equivocation President Trump has offered …


…Trump’s equivocation earlier this week between white supremacists and those who were protesting them in Charlottesville.


… his initial equivocation, saying there was “blame on both sides.”

Vanity Fair:

…the president of the United States equivocated.

Even at the venerable Economist:

Mr Trump’s equivocation on Saturday thrilled the Daily Stormer

And so on.  In a follow up post, perhaps Friday, I’ll talk about the problems with the slippery slope argument Trump made defending the monuments, so there is a lot of bad reasoning and falsity to criticize.  But, my point today is just something small.  It’s just this:  if people are going to use the vocabulary of fallacy appraisal, it should be used correctly.  Here’s the big point: so much power is wielded by that vocabulary.  Think of the big-word points scored by folks who use that word — and notice the force it has when you’re criticizing someone.  It’s the fallacy-spotting game, and throwing a fallacy name out there shifts the course of conversation.  So using fallacy vocabulary (especially when it’s composed of Latinisms), means you’re claiming a kind of informed position on the debate — like pausing and making a point of order.

That’s the reason why you’ve got to be competent when using the vocabulary.  In this case, we’ve got a fallacy, and what’s being criticized, again is something just as simple as a false analogy (or false equivalence).  There may be an element of two wrongs to the reasoning, too (since T also implicated that because the antifa folks were violent, too, they bear blame, too).

Regardless, what he did not do is equivocate.  Here’s why.  Equivocation is an error of term-confusion.  It happens when you’ve got two meanings for a term, and you reason along only looking at the similarity of the term, but miss the dissimilarity of the meanings in the reasoning.  Here’s an example:

Students attend school to improve their faculties.

Their faculties are their teachers

So students go to school to improve their teachers.

Funny? Yeah,  and fallacious! It’s because faculty in the two instances meant different things, and so the syllogism looks valid, it’s because the term faculty appears as the middle term, but there’s two different things denoted by those two instances of the term.  (In the first, it means the mental functions, in the second, it means teachers.)

Here is a lesson about fallacy-charges.  They come with a burden of proof.  When I charge you with begging the question, I need to show either (i) how your conclusion is one of your premises or (ii) how one of your premises is, given the argument, more controversial than your conclusion.  When I charge you with straw man, I need to show how you’ve distorted my view to look worse than it is.  And so on.  When you charge equivocation, you have to show (i) that there are two instances of a term in some reasoning, and (ii) show that those two instances of the same term  nevertheless mean different things in the two cases.

So what’s the upshot?  Journalists don’t use the vocabulary of logic accurately.  For the most part, that’s not much of a surprise, but it’s disappointing to a college prof who tries to make it so that the names of things helps us keep them straight, not just that knowing lots of names for things makes it so that you can use them as you like.

Here’s another shot, perhaps a bit more of a sympathetic view on the use of the term.  When one says a speaker had an ‘unequivocal’ statement, that means that the statement was clear about its meaning.  So unequivocal statements are unambiguous, at least on the level of terms.  So perhaps the view is that in being unclear about whether T was really rejecting the commitments of Nazis or their behavior, T equivocated.   However, I’m not entirely moved by this line of thought, since many of the cases are those of ‘equivocating between’ not ‘equivocating about’.  So, perhaps, there are different kinds of misuse of this term.




Stop contradicting yourself

Check out the image:

Yes, this is exactly what diversity means.  This reminds me of a classic George Will argument (with the same equivocation) against "Liberals."

Although liberals give lip service to "diversity," they often treat federalism as an annoying impediment to their drive for uniformity. Feingold, who is proud that Wisconsin is one of only four states that clearly require special elections of replacement senators in all circumstances, wants to impose Wisconsin's preference on the other 46. Yes, he acknowledges, they could each choose to pass laws like Wisconsin's, but doing this "state by state would be a long and difficult process." Pluralism is so tediously time-consuming.

Got them liberals there George!  Maybe, by way of satire, we could construct the following argument to make the same very immature point: If you favor diversity, you favor it all of the time, if you have diversity all of the time, then you have uniform diversity, so you have uniformity, so if you favor diversity, you favor uniformity.  I should add: stop contradicting yourself. 


In their view, A is A.

No doubt many have now heard of the controversy surrounding Politifact's "Lie of the Year."  So has Politifact, apparently.  They respond to all of the very straightforward criticism with some very general points about how everyone is biased.  Then they remark:

PolitiFact had its latest brush with the Echo Chamber Nation this week. We gave our Lie of the Year to the Democrats' claim that the Republicans "voted to end Medicare." That set off a firestorm in the liberal blogosphere, with many saying that claim was not actually wrong. We've received about 1,500 e-mails about our choice and only a few agreed with us.

Some of the response has been substantive and thoughtful. The critics said we ignored the long-term effects of Rep. Paul Ryan's plan and that we were wrong to consider his privatized approach to be Medicare. In their view, that is an end to Medicare.

We've read the critiques and see nothing that changes our findings. We stand by our story and our conclusion that the claim was the most significant falsehood of 2011. We made no judgments on the merits of the Ryan plan; we just said that the characterization by the Democrats was false.

Our competitors FactCheck.org and the Washington Post's FactChecker had also said the Medicare claim was false — and this week both picked it for their biggest-falsehoods-of-the-year lists.

"In their view," is a pretty hilarious qualifier in front of the key point of factual disagreement.  After all, according to critics of Politifact, changing medicare from a single-payer government run system to a voucher-driven private system, which is absent the guarantees of the government system, is to end medicare.  Medicare is the government system; something else, not medicare, is the private system.  Sure, medicare will not end tomorrow on this plan.  But if you're under 55, it's ended for you.  It seems to me that they ought to respond, then, to those points.  They don't.  They point to their equally under theorized counterparts.  They argue:

First the truth: The budget plan that Republicans pushed through the House in 2011 would have radically changed Medicare in the future — for workers now under age 55. Starting in the year 2022, the GOP plan called for new Medicare beneficiaries to purchase private insurance with the help of federal subsidies.

But the plan would have continued the present Medicare system indefinitely for those now getting benefits, and also for all those who reach age 65 during the next decade.

But the truth didn’t stop Democrats from misrepresenting the proposal shamelessly to scare senior citizens and win election votes. They tested this tactic in a May 26 special House election in New York state, running ads accusing the Republican candidate of endorsing a plan that would “essentially end Medicare” and amount to “cutting benefits for seniors,” claims that were far from the truth.   

This is even worse than the Politifact piece, because they seem to get the basic idea, but deny it in the same sentence.  The rest of the piece is worse, as it then finds some weaker version of the "end medicare" meme, attacks that weak-man style, and concludes the whole thing is a lie. 

Now imagine this counter example.  We have a private insurance system in the United States.  Hurray for us, I know.  What if we replaced this private insurance system with a government single-payer system?  Would that amount to essentially ending private health insurance?  I imagine Politifact and FactCheck.org would answer no, as we would still have this private health insurance, only the government would pay for it, and it wouldn't be private.  This idea I can endorse.   

Showers of gold

I belong to a faculty union, now in it's third year of contract negotiations (for a contract which lasts four years).  The sticking point, unsurprisingly, is not money.  No one expects any of that–no one other than the administration, the top rung of which has been lavished with raises equal in some cases to my entire full time Assistant Professor salary.  No one is complaining; their punishment is that they get to be administrators.  The sticking point is workload. 

But that's not really want I wanted to talk about.  I'd like to talk about promises.  David Leonhardt, writing in the New York Times, writes:

To be clear, I’m making an argument that’s different from “Government workers are overpaid.” I’m saying that they are paid in the wrong ways — in ways that make life easier on union leaders and elected officials, at least initially, but that eventually hurt both workers and taxpayers.

The best example is health insurance. Health plans for union workers and retirees are much more likely to require little or no co-payment, which leads to lots of medical treatments that don’t make people any healthier, and to huge costs. Ultimately, some of these plans will probably prove so expensive as to be unsustainable. Workers would have been better off accepting a less generous benefit package and slightly higher salaries.

 Got that.  He's not saying they're overpaid.  He's saying they're overpaid.

On a different point.  Workers negotiated those plans on purpose.  They accept lower salary in favor of better health and retirement benefits, because they understand that this is part of their compensation.  The responsibility for making these deals sustainable belongs not to them, but to the people with whom they negotiated.  If it doesn't, then Leonhardt has justified negotiation in bad faith, and has placed the blame on failing to follow through on promises with the promise breaker. 

In the moral universe, promises such as those outlined in contracts entail moral obligations to uphold them–however "unsustainable" they may be.  If they turn out, in this case, to be unsustainable, the fault lies with the promiser. 

**In other news.  Corporations have no personal right to privacy:

“Two words together may assume a more particular meaning than those words in isolation,” he wrote, adding that “personal privacy” suggests “a kind of privacy evocative of human concerns.”

The chief justice had examples here, too. “We understand a golden cup to be a cup made of or resembling gold,” he wrote. “A golden boy, on the other hand, is one who is charming, lucky and talented. A golden opportunity is one not to be missed.”

I wonder if Roberts noticed all of the clerks laughing.