October 25, 2016

Here's the post where I reject the term "false equivalence."

First, is it "equivalence" or "equivalency"? The Ngram says "equivalence":

The 2 words are equivalent, and neither is wrong. I'm just noticing that there are 2 words and interested in picking one and being consistent. It's not a word I've used much in the 12-year history of this blog. It appears almost only in quotes and almost always when someone is saying "false equivalenc[e/y]" (or "moral equivalenc[e/y]").

It occurs to me that "false equivalence" is a bad expression. What's "false" about thinking 2 things are alike? You might falsely claim that 2 things are identical, but if you are just putting 2 things side by side and saying they are similar when there are also differences, you don't deserve to be accused of falsehood. Maybe "equivalence" is the wrong word. If you haven't said the 2 things are exactly equal, you don't deserve to be said to have asserted that there is "equivalence." To concentrate on the word "false" in the phrase "false equivalence" is to get distracted, perhaps by taking offense at the pejorative.

I'm drawn into this language issue by an off-line discussion of the alleged sexual misdeeds of Donald Trump and Bill Clinton. In case you are wondering.

Anyway, looking at my own archive, I don't think I've ever accused anyone of relying on "false equivalence," but I have discussed the usage. For example, in June 2014, David Brock was trying to convince rich liberals to spend big money on politics even as he was lambasting the Koch Brothers (nonliberals) for spending big money on politics:
“You’re not in this room today trying to figure out how to rig the game so you can be free to make money poisoning little kids, and neither am I... Subscribing to a false moral equivalence is giving the Kochs exactly what they want: keeping us quiet about what they’re doing to destroy the very fabric of our nation."
And I said: 
His idea is: Since the Democrats are in politics to do what is good and the Kochs want what is bad, there's a "false equivalence." Seeing the false equivalence — I observe — requires that you look at the end and not the means.
The phrase "false equivalence" is very common rhetoric these days. Watch out for it. I think it's being used to inhibit comparisons. But there is nothing wrong — nothing false — about comparisons. You just need to be perceptive and honest about how much alike things are. Those who say "false equivalence" are really saying they'd prefer to call attention to the differences or for you to just not bother them with a comparison that makes them uncomfortable.

One last thing. There are different reasons to resist someone's saying 2 things are alike. There's the familiar political argument. X criticizes Y's candidate, Y says X's candidate did the same kind of thing, X wants to get back to the problem with Y's candidate, and the phrase "false equivalence" seems like the tool for the job.

But quite apart from politics, there are different psychological orientations. I'm thinking of lumpers and splitters:
A "lumper" is an individual who takes a gestalt view of a definition, and assigns examples broadly, assuming that differences are not as important as signature similarities. A "splitter" is an individual who takes precise definitions, and creates new categories to classify samples that differ in key ways.
Some people see similarities much more than differences, and for other people differences predominate. I tend to see the ways we're all alike, but there are other people who look for ways to segment us off into little groups. I think I'm more of a lumper but to say that is to be something of a splitter, no? Those other people are splitters. It makes no sense. Or, yes, I see how it does, I need to see how it does. I don't think there are lumpers and splitters. That's too splitter-y for me. I think we're much more alike than different, but if you think we are more different, that's okay too, as long as you don't accuse me of falsehood for saying that we are more alike.


Left Bank of the Charles said...

Ok, they're both cads, but only one of them is running for President.

Brando said...

How about just use the term "weak comparison"? It's usually what people mean by it.

Bob Ellison said...

It's not that we're lumpers or splitters, but that most people don't realize, or want to realize, that there are different types. There are good and bad people, hens and roosters, dogs and cats. Most people get old before they notice.

Michael P said...

Equivalent means that two things are functionally the same -- that for the purpose at hand, there are no relevant distinctions. In mathematics, 2 is equivalent to 5 in the "modulo 3" group: they behave the same way in that group. In contrast, saying Hillary Clinton's private email server is okay because Colin Powell's private email was past is an inexcusably false equivalency because there are a mountain of relevant differences.

Eric the Fruit Bat said...

Saying that something is a false equivalence is more polite than calling somebody stupid.

David Begley said...

Not persuaded at all. False equivalence is a very useful term. It is useful because it is a rhetorical method frequently used by the Left to deceive.

Take the Trump and Bill Clinton example. At worst, DT said some bad things and maybe groped and kissed some women without consent. But with Bill Clinton, he has been credibly charged with rape and, in the Paula Jones case, he settled a sexual harassment case were he exposed himself. But the Left and MSM have crucified Trump while Bill Clinton is lionized.

There are other examples. The David Brock example is a good one. Brock wants the Left's money so he can get rich. But the Koch Brothers can't spend their own money in order to express their own opinions? And to this day I can't figure out what is so horrible about the Kochs.

dbp said...

The claim of false equivalence is not meant to be taken literally. That is, it is not meant to mean that the two things cannot be compared at all, just the way in which they are being compared is flawed.

Take for example the comparison of Bill Clinton's and Donald Trump's sexual misdeeds. Some will say this is a false equivalence since Trump is running for office and WJC is not. Others will say it is a fair comparison because Hillary was well aware of Bill's behaviour and yet happily supported his run for president, now she claims that such behaviour is disqualifying when it comes to Trump.

Paul Snively said...

I dunno. "False equivalence" takes into account that the things being compared are not identical, and allows for the possibility of the reader/listener simply not having information that the claimant of a false equivalence does. It's specific, precise, and not emotionally loaded. That's why it's become a useful rhetorical trope.

The David Brock quote is interesting precisely because it puts the real issue—that, at the very least, each side in a "false equivalence." so called by one of the comparees, sees themselves as having some reason why the comparison should be measured in their favor—front and center. The problem isn't big money in politics. It's big evil money in politics. And of course the Democratic side is goodness and light, and the "conservative" (you know your interlocutor is ignorant or lying when they call the Koch brothers "conservative" or, more hilariously, "right-wing") side is "trying to figure out how to rig the game so you can be free to make money poisoning little kids." I mean, seriously, if we're going to criticize overheated rhetoric, how about something on literally "It's for the children?"

Hillary Clinton: What the District of Columbia was trying to do was to protect toddlers from guns.

The only toddlers involved here are the ones who believe Heller had anything to do with toddlers.

So although Brock actually offered a false inequivalence, I believe false equivalence is still a useful phrase. But it'd be good to see a "for the chillllllllllldren!" tag, and see how often you have the opportunity to use it on Republicans or Libertarians.

eLocke said...

"False equivalence" is a term invented to reject the opponent's argument without engaging with it. The implication is presenting both sides of a case is drawing a "false equivalence" between the validity of the arguments on both sides.

Aaron Sorkin brought it up in Newsroom using the Birther argument as an example where one side had no validity to their argument, and presenting both sides was giving credibility where it wasn't deserved.

Seems to have become a handy device among some of the punditry.

pdug said...

A common form of 'false equivalence' argument i encounter is comparisons of social negatives like murder, arson, pedophilia, or bestiality, or porn with homosexuality.

The equivalence is deemed to be false because its pejorative to homosexuality to ask in what ways (people disapprove of it for moral reasons) is it like murder or kleptomania (things we disapprove of morally)

To even think about comparing them is a crime against good thinking.

rhhardin said...

Equivalence in false equivalence revers to the act of making equivalent; and saying it's a false act.

It talks about the deverbal noun, in other words, not the regular noun.

They're different. You're making a false equivalence.

Jim said...

Engineer here. It seems to me that lawyers would be overwhelmingly splitters. All that talk of distinguishing cases. Am I on the right track?

rhhardin said...

Think about the ways that man and women are the same.

Bruce Hayden said...

Ann's talk of lumpers and splitters was interesting. My first thought was that seeing the differences was the better, more intelligent trait. You can get down in the details and find differences. But, then, she got to the bottom, and announced that she was a lumper. And, I had to rethink my premise. I think that there are advantages to lumping. To some extent, it allows you to find patterns where others don't see them. Something like that.

On a personal level, I think that I am more a lumper than a splitter. Racially, it is probably because of my upper middle class upraising - the lower classes tend to be a lot more tribal, probably because they are competing for limited resources. Some of my father's favorite clients were Black and Hispanic, and I grew up hearing about their virtues. So, I tend to see the commonalities between and among people more than their differences, which, for the most part, makes it much easier to find common ground and get along with them. On a professional level though, the story maybe a bit less clear. In my first career, as a software engineer, both lumping and splitting were important. Lumping in design, and splitting maybe more in debugging and support. But, as a (patent) attorney, it seems that I spend more of my time as a splitter. And, maybe Ann's and my difference there may be attributable to where we have worked in our field. As a teacher of the law, she has to instill the overall structure and form of a subject to her students, and, as a result, lumping may be the more advantageous trait. But, down in the trenches, after you understand the underlying structure and form, it is often advantageous to see the differences, to "distinguish" your case from others.

SeanF said...

Ann, "false equivalence" is not a bad expression, and it doesn't simply mean thinking that two things are "alike".

It refers to a logical fallacy whereby one proves that a is true and then continues as if it has been proven that b is true.

Regardless of how similar a and b are, if you are going to argue from the point that b is true, you must actually prove that b is true.

rhhardin said...

Just yesterday I ran into somebody noticing the equivalance of bisecting binomial coefficients and counting the number of 0/1 sequences of length n+1 with nth difference equal to zero.

William said...

Robert Benchley observed that the world is divided into two groups of people: those who divide the world into two groups of people and those who don't. I have, on frequent occasions, been a member of the latter group, but my position on the subject is not absolute.

Rob said...

Following up to what @eLocke said, the charge of false equivalence is used these days to encourage the media to present a one-sided account of the news and to give intellectual cover to those that do so. This election cycle has seen the media give itself permission (blessed by useful idiots in academia) to slant their coverage outrageously and to contemplate denying coverage to candidates whom media decide are bad for the country.

Plenty of political scientists and pundits hyperventilate about how Trumpism may open the door to profoundly dangerous changes in American politics. What they should be concerned about is how the media's growing perception of themselves as guarantors not of a level playing field but of what they regard as the desired outcome threatens to undermine the system even more profoundly.

traditionalguy said...

Remember, nothing is wrong when "everybody does it." It's those sober, hard workers who screw it up for everybody.

Equivalent Lives Matter!

CStanley said...

In one of the threads on abortion the other day, although not using the "false equivalence" term, I argued the opposite position about the usefulness of this idea (my phrasing was about analyzing analogies to see why they fall short of proving what the speaker has asserted.)

In persuasive speech, comparing two things is meant to convince the listener that what makes "a" true also makes "b" true because "a" and "b" are alike. But it should be obvious that this can be used as a rhetorical trick, because "a" and "b" might be alike in some ways, different in others, and most importantly might not be alike in some critical way that should make the listener accept the speakers' argument.

I don't think this has much to do with "lumping vs. splitting" or if it does, maybe it's that some people who are lumpers by nature should really be vigilant in order to not be swayed by poor arguments. I think you actually have to be good at lumping and splitting- to be skilled at both comparing and contrasting. i don't think logical lumping and splitting (considering ideas and whether they group together or not) necessarily correlates with lumping and splitting the way we view other people.

CStanley said...

And I think some other commenters have already gotten to this point, but the "false equivalence" meme definitely took off during the period of W's presidency when Democrats were practicing a scorched earth campaign against the GOP. They needed the "false equivalence" response, as in the Brock example, because they were obvious hypocrites in describing everything on the GOP side as evil while they were engaging in very similar tactics.

So although in my previous comment I describe the use of weak analogies as a rhetorical trick, the point here is that it can also be a trick to refuse to acknowledge analogies. Again, lumping AND splitting are important tools in logic. Comparing AND contrasting...and then only after looking at a situations both ways, forming a conclusion.

mockturtle said...

I tend to see the ways we're all alike

With all due respect, Ann, you tend to see the ways you believe we are all alike.

Big Mike said...

Point of information. The terms "lumpers" and "splitters" are perfectly valid in the field of paleontology, which to my knowledge is where it originated. Lumpers look for similarities in fossil remains and try to keep down the number of separate species and genera. Splitters focus on differences. For instance there seem to be two forms of T. Rex, a "gracile" form and a more robust form. Two different species? Or merely a sexual difference? (N.B., in many modern reptiles the female is larger and stronger than the male -- however dinosaurs are not reptiles.) The arguments between lumpers and splitters can get downright vicious when looking at the fossil remains of genus Homo and related hominid genera.

MayBee said...

"False Equivalence" is a term I only ever hear from lefties.

Big Mike said...

At any rate, Professor, you may reject the term "false equivalence" but I view it as being perfectly valid and I will continue to use it (though out of respect I will try to avoid using it when commenting on your blog).

rhhardin said...

What's not to alike?

Bruce Hayden said...

Engineer here. It seems to me that lawyers would be overwhelmingly splitters. All that talk of distinguishing cases. Am I on the right track?

Maybe the way to understand this is to realize that you need to learn to lump before you can learn to split. 1L (first year in law school), in particular, concentrates on building an overall structure where you can pigeon hole pieces of the law. You learn how the whole thing fits together. One of the great scenes in The Paper Chase, was a guy with his 1,000 page outline stumbling, and having it fly all over the place, as he was preparing for his 1L finals. A lot of 1Ls are really that compulsive, and their outlines are everything to them (I worked from one I bought, and it worked just fine, but my father was an attorney, so I grew up "thinking like a lawyer" to some extent). And, maybe the problem there is that law students (and lawyers in general) tend to be detail oriented, and some seem to have a major problem with seeing the forest through all the trees. Once you get through LS, and pass the bar (any bar, as Crooked Hillary showed us, moving to AR after failing the DC bar), you can go back to gazing at the trees. Ann, of course, is in a position of trying to teach her students how to see the entire forest.

Bruce Hayden said...

Let me add that part of why LS is hard for so many is that they intentionally don't make it easy. In most subjects, in most areas of study, they lay out the outline for you. Not in LS, where you are supposed to put it together yourself by reading cases, which spend a lot of time splitting hairs. The idea is that when you get into practice, you will have to see how different areas of the law fit together on your own - except that lawyers, being lazy, have a lot of aids and other ways of essentially cheating available to them. Treatises, summaries, outlines, etc. Still, you are depending on someone else's work, and some of them are less experienced than you are, or are coming at a field with preconceived biases, so you really do need to be able to do the work yourself. And, little is more embarrassing than quoting case law from a secondary source, and having opposing counsel show the judge that you were, essentially, cutting corners, and got it wrong. Still, I came out of LS with a full set of Horn books and outlines, for the subjects I took, and for a lot of the subjects I didn't, and still review them, on occasion, almost 30 years later, when jumping into a subject I don't know that well.

Mick said...

Except that all of the claims against Trump are lies. That kind of blows up this nonsense meme of the "law prof" (soon to be retired, and thank god not poisoning young minds any more.)

Michael K said...

"Except that all of the claims against Trump are lies. "

I don't agree. Some are true. We have the video tape for that. But are they important ?

The party of JFK and JBJ tell us that they are important, notwithstanding JFKs constant treatment for STDs and Johnson's bragging.

Bill Clinton lived a life of corruption from blowjobs in the Oval Office to Whitewater to missile guidance systems to China to all the stuff since he left office and took over as the bagman.

Trump is the brick through window of the Ruling Class that screws everyone who doesn't buy protection,

He also just might have some better ideas. Reagan had a few good ideas.

Better manners but he also had a career in show business that was good prep for the age of TV in politics..

Michael K said...

LBJ. No preview.

Stephen A. Meigs said...

The evil of improper lumping is underappreciated. Indeed, whenever a stupidly sacrificial behavior resembles an appropriate unselfish behavior, selfishness is united in conflating the two, even though one side conflates them from a selfish unwillingness to engage in the appropriate unselfish behavior, while the other side conflates them from a selfish desire to profit from the stupid sacrificial behavior. The prime example of this would be in considering female mating propensities. Those who more mate because they think or feel the sex would be pleasant or beautiful rather than from monetary considerations or a claim on the mate's time and resources tend to be lumped together with imprudent skanky sluts addicted to sodomy. Half the conflaters are selfish females (and those they deceive), who more tend to mate for money, and thus want a female mating for love to be viewed as akin to being a skanky imprudent slut. The other half of the conflaters are nasty males (and their addicts), who want females who mate from corrupted feelings caused by adventitious externally-introduced-into-the-digestive-system sodomy chemicals or drunkenness to be viewed as being akin to the appropriately unselfish and loving females who more mate from natural sexual feelings than from monetary considerations. The problem isn't that people are too conservative about physical intimacy or too liberal about physical intimacy (about half the country is one way and about half the other), it's that people excessively conflate sex (which most people should be somewhat more permissive and comfortable about) with sodomy (which people should shun absolutely), because evil is united in that lie.

Stephen A. Meigs said...

But splitting can also be a red-herring. E.g., pedantic mathematicians can be too splitting in excessively believing that fractions with irrationals in the denominator are evil while fractions with irrationals just in the numerator are standard beautiful objects worthy of mathematical satisfaction. But there's a conflation angle there. Here they may be conflating bottom of fraction with bottom of human anatomy. This could be just from insane reasons (probably the most typical reasons), but it could be that they treasure the mathematical distinction as a red herring to distract from the distinction between sex and sodomy. In particular, males who get women who fell when young to sodomy from other males sometimes would like to sodomize these women and yet separate the women from their youthful past and the males therein. They might do this by making it seem like pedantic older males and those trained in their lore have a very generally useful discriminating quality very contrary to bratty abusive boys too undisciplined for math and "girl idiots" too young and stupid to know the bottoms to protect are the fraction bottoms. If only she had appreciated the dangers of irrationals in fraction bottoms before! But, sadly, she did not. But you know what?--she can feel good about herself because she now has chosen as a mate a male teacher who makes it his calling to train girls (and boys) in those and similar facts so that some day, after much training, they too can become smart enough that sex won't be imprudent. He cares about girls. And as for his sodomizing her just as rapists or physically abusive males did to her when she was young, well, like as not she'd just consider it a virtue on account of his being discriminating enough to sodomize her as she has learned from her past experiences (bad experiences are learning experiences) that she wants, because he knows that human bottoms aren't like fraction bottoms.

Similarly with segregation. Was segregation mainly about improperly discriminating between whites and blacks or was it more about improperly conflating discriminating between whites and blacks with discriminating between sex and sodomy in an attempt by nasty white males to try to make white sodomy addicts seem all right to themselves because they knew they weren't being intimate with blacks by drinking out of the same water fountains?

I have read rumors on internet that "discrimination" first took on a pejorative meaning on account of railroads "discriminating" between different customers, favoring some (with lower prices) over others for various greedy reasons. I may study this.

n.n said...


John Lawton said...

This is why I love Althouse.