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False Equivalence

It’s not uncommon for two things to look alike. For instance, twins often look similar or even the same. However, just because two people (or two things) have similar qualities does not make them equal in every way. This is how the false equivalence fallacy is born.

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False Equivalence

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It’s not uncommon for two things to look alike. For instance, twins often look similar or even the same. However, just because two people (or two things) have similar qualities does not make them equal in every way. This is how the false equivalence fallacy is born.

False Equivalence Definition

False equivalence is a broad category of logical fallacy. It includes all fallacies that contain comparative flaws.

False Equivalence, Typewriter next to a laptop on a table, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Saying that a typewriter and a laptop are the same because they're both used for typing is a false equivalence.

A comparative flaw is a flaw in comparing two or more things.

This is how we arrive at a false equivalence.

Someone creates a false equivalence when they say that two or more things are equal when they are not.

Here is an example of how the fallacy commonly develops.

John accidentally hit his elbow on the table, hurting himself.

Fred accidentally overdosed on a drug, hurting himself.

Hitting your elbow and overdosing on a drug are equivalent because you hurt yourself accidentally in both cases.

A false equivalence often occurs when two things have something in common and when someone uses that commonality to say that those two things are the same.

How are they wrong, though? Exactly how is the false equivalence a logical fallacy?

False Equivalence Fallacy

To understand why false equivalence is a logical fallacy, you first must understand what it means for two things to be equal.

False Equivalence, figurine of lady justice scale statue, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The false equivalence fallacy means judging two unequal things as equal.

In terms of logical argumentation, to be equal, two things need to result from the same causes and produce the same effects.

In the case of John and Fred, the causes of their “accidents” are very different. John bumped his elbow due to a light issue of hastiness. On the other hand, Fred overdosed due to taking a dangerous drug.

The results of John and Fred’s situations are also very different. Yes, both are “hurt,” but that does not tell the whole story. John might say “ouch,” and rub his elbow. Fred, on the other hand, might be having a seizure; Fred might be dying or dead.

John and Fred’s situations are not equal because they have too many differences. Thus, to call their situations "equal" is to commit the logical fallacy of false equivalence.

The following are ways that the false equivalence might appear.

False Equivalence Resulting from an Issue of Magnitude

John and Fred’s situations are a perfect example of how false equivalence results from an issue of magnitude.

Magnitude measures the difference between two similar events.

For instance, if you eat one slice of pizza, that is one thing. If you eat six pizzas, that is orders of magnitude more pizza that was eaten.

False equivalence resulting from an issue of magnitude occurs when someone argues that two things are the same despite their difference in size or scope.

Now examine this false equivalence again.

John accidentally hit his elbow on the table, hurting himself.

Fred accidentally overdosed on a drug, hurting himself.

Hitting your elbow and overdosing on a drug are equivalent because you hurt yourself accidentally in both cases.

Can you see what happened? Look at the highlighted terms “accidentally” and “hurt.”

Fred’s “accident” is orders of magnitude worse than John’s “accident.” Likewise, Fred is hurt orders of magnitude worse than John is.

When identifying a fallacy of false equivalence, check for words that can mean different things based on the order of magnitude.

False Equivalence Resulting from Oversimplification

Oversimplification is when you reduce a complex situation to a simple formula or solution. Look at this line of reasoning and see if you can see the oversimplification. Bonus points if you can already explain how “oversimplification” results in false equivalence!

It doesn't matter where in the United States a landowner is. The law treats everyone the same in the US!

This argument oversimplifies equality in the United States where property law is concerned. For instance, it does not account for state and county rights to levy different tax rates. States and counties might collect property taxes in vastly different ways!

This can happen in many situations, including argumentation.

False Equivalence Resulting from the Slippery Slope

The slippery slope is its own fallacy.

The slippery slope fallacy is the unsubstantiated assertion that a small issue grows into a huge issue.

This can develop into a false equivalence fallacy, too. Here’s how.

Alcoholism begins with a single drink. You might as well start looking for a liver donor right now!

In this example, the slippery slope fallacy is the assertion that because some people become alcoholics beginning with the first drink, you will too.

In this example, the false equivalence is the notion that your first drink is like your umpteenth drink. This person implies this equivalence with their comment: “You might as well start looking for a liver donor right now!” In reality, though, the first drink is unlike the umpteenth drink, making this argument a logical fallacy.

False Equivalence vs. False Analogy

These fallacies are very similar. The difference is that the false equivalence focuses on two things being “equal” instead of two things sharing traits.

Here is the definition of a false analogy, also called a faulty analogy.

A false analogy is saying that two things are alike in multiple ways just because they are alike in one way.

Notice how this fallacy does not assert that the two things are equal. Here is a false equivalence followed by a false analogy.

False Equivalence:

Salt and water both help hydrate you. Thus they are the same.

False Analogy:

Salt and water both help hydrate you. Because they are the same in this way, salt is also a liquid like water is.

The false equivalence is more generic. The goal of a false equivalence is to level the playing field. A false analogy is a little different. A false analogy's goal is to disperse one thing's traits onto another.

The false equivalence deals with equality. The faulty analogy deals with traits.

False Equivalence vs. Red Herring

These two are quite distinctive.

A red herring is an irrelevant idea that diverts an argument away from its resolution.

A red herring does not deal with any specific idea, while false equivalence deals with the concept of equality.

That said, a false equivalence might also be a red herring. Here’s an example.

Bill: You drank my coffee, Jack.

Jack: This is the company’s office. We share and share alike! Want to use the stapler I got over here?

Jack argues that Bill’s cup of coffee is the same as his cup of coffee because they are in the company office. Jack then uses this idea against Bill by offering his stapler. This “offering” is a red herring intended to make Bill feel foolish or guilty about asking about the coffee. Of course, the stapler is not the same as the coffee, just the way that Jack and Bill’s coffees are not the same.

False Equivalence Example

False equivalence can appear in literature essays and timed tests. Now that you understand the concept, try to find the false equivalence in this passage.

In the story, Cartarella is a small-time criminal. On page 19, he breaks into a general store to steal syrup and “a handful of now-crushed eggs.” He’s inept. Beginning on page 44, he spends two pages and a half-hour trying to break into a car, only to limp away with a bruised hand and bloody elbow, hilariously unspotted. Still, you have to remember: he is breaking the law. Although Garibaldi is a murderer, arsonist, and prolific car thief, he and Cartarella are essentially the same. They are criminals who violate the law, which makes Cantarella just as bad, deep down.

When the writer argues that Cartarella and Garibaldi are “essentially the same” because they are both criminals, the writer commits the fallacy of false equivalence. This is an issue of magnitude. Garibaldi’s crimes are far worse than Cartarella’s, which means they are not the same. In other words, the results of their crimes are too different to call them “the same.” Garibaldi’s crimes have resulted in targeted deaths. Cartarella’s crimes have amounted to the loss of some syrup and a few eggs.

To avoid creating a false equivalence, always check the causes and effects of the subjects in question.

Comparative Flaws - Key takeaways

  • Someone creates a false equivalence when they say that two or more things are equal when they are not.
  • In terms of logical argumentation, to be equal, two things need to result from the same causes and produce the same effects.
  • False equivalence resulting from an issue of magnitude occurs when someone argues that two things are the same despite their difference in size or scope.
  • False equivalence can result from oversimplification. Oversimplification is when you reduce a complex situation to a simple formula or solution.
  • The goal of a false equivalence is to level the playing field. A false analogy's goal is to disperse one thing's traits onto another.

Frequently Asked Questions about False Equivalence

Someone creates a false equivalence when they say that two or more things are equal when they are not.

A false equivalence often occurs when two things share a thing or result in common, and when someone uses that commonality to say that those two things are the same. This should not be done in argumentation.

John accidentally hit his elbow on the table, hurting himself. Fred accidentally overdosed on a drug, hurting himself. Hitting your elbow and overdosing on a drug are equivalent because you hurt yourself accidentally in both cases. This is a false equivalence because while they both "hurt" and were "accidents" they are very different and not the same.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

A _____ is a flaw in comparing two or more things.

Someone creates a _____ when they say that two or more things are equal when they are not.

_____ is when you reduce a complex situation to a simple formula or solution.

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