This article aims to address the problem of false equivalence, which has metastasized into every possible realm there is, be it economics, finance, journalism, psychology or anything that deals with public policy. While in some cases, its presence is overwhelmingly clear, it is the instances where it isn’t as obvious that we must concern ourselves with. As we will see, conclusions which seem rather innocuous or worse, obvious might just also be laced with false equivalency.
What is the fallacy in question? The unreasonable comparison between two very different objects or events on a basis which holds no ground. In simple words, just because both of them are round does not mean apples are oranges.
Thus the fallacy of false equivalence is, on the face of it, straightforward. While comparing apples and oranges is a well known futile exercise, the truth is putting a finger on this fallacy when it’s in play on real life is not always an easy task. Taking a real life example of how the fallacy may occur, consider a person A littered in the park and person B embezzled huge amounts of money, simply labelling both of them as criminals and putting the matter to rest does not settle the issue.
It is thus the logical fallacy of comparing two distinct objects, events or people on the basis of reasoning which is inherently flawed due to inconsistency. When present, it drastically undermines the substantial differences between the two. Being one of the most cognitive biases there are, the fallacy holds the characteristic of sneaking up on us even in the most routine conversations which is the most significant reason why it is critical to call out false equivalence whenever one comes across it. What’s else is the plethora of areas in real life where we indeed do come across false equivalence.
In his book, The Relativity of Wrong (1989), renowned scientist Isaac Asimov explains how there exist various degrees of ‘wrong’ when he introduced the concept of ‘Wronger than wrong’.
Science has long evolved from theories which have been polished over time. In such a case, the condensation of this long history into a single sentence like ‘All theories till date have been wrong’ is, in his own terms, wronger than the theories themselves. A grain of sand was considered the smallest thing in the universe until the atom was discovered, which in turn split open to present a number of tinier particles.
The degree of how wrong the early theories are matters just as much as the fact that they are in fact, wrong. This is not to say that the theories which have existed before great scientific advancements took place were always grossly wrong. After all, there were substantial reasons for it then to be believed that nothing else could be smaller than a grain of sand, or the fact that the Earth is flat or the notion that every other celestial body revolves around the Earth. In a nutshell, mankind had begun its journey of finding the truth ever since, and now with every major breakthrough, it just moves closer towards finding the true reality.
There might only be so much to say about debates in the India media, but all in all the sheer volume of opinions (and noise) seems to form the soothing impression that it’s doing a fair fob in proving us with the truth. The audience provided with two ‘fair’ sides gets to pick which one is right. The issue lies deeper, where most of the times the arguments presented might not pertain to the same cause.
As examples, consider some of the age old classic ways of countering one’s opposition; the red herring which argues the original argument entirely, the tu quoque which seeks to discredit the other speaker, whataboutuism which goes on to take the shape of a personal attack on the opposition regarding their own actions being representative of their speech. Now while all of these seem way too commonplace to been given thought about, the crux is simple. Concepts like fairness or objectivity which form the basis for any of these debates are in fact much debated topics themselves.
Consider the controversy comparing the nationalities of Congress leader Sonia Gandhi and Bollywood superstar Akshay Kumar which took place rather recently. While one of them contests to lead the country and the other isn’t just a great name in the entertainment industry but also has shown no interest yet in contesting India’s grand elections, perhaps both of them holding foreign nationalities is a matter of great concern indeed.
As another example of false equivalence etched in our minds so deeply we hardly notice, hasn’t the conflict between India and Pakistan since the days of yore seeped into the everyday conflicts between Hindus and Muslims in the country? Not that there haven’t been instances of outright mockery or bigotry by both these sections even on national platforms, most arguments do indeed stem from similar fallacies. As Nissim Mannathukkaren pointed out, “In no period of Indian political history after Partition has so much hate pervaded the public sphere. WhatsApp groups and Twitter timelines have become a cesspool of the most morbid fantasies of hate against Muslims, all purveyed by otherwise “civil”, “decent” “educated” and “family-oriented” Hindus. Whenever confronted with this stark reality, Hindutva supporters respond with whataboutery like “what about Waris Pathan?” and “what about “Sharjeel Imam?””
The controversy regarding the Citizenship Amednment Act (CAA) dealt overwhelmingly with muslims, including women, being treated as traitors. Perhaps the ‘Goli maro’ drew reference from heroes of India’s past, although the context of its application would have put these great personalities to shame.
Perhaps we can bring election agenda into the discussion as well. Moving abroad too, Donald Trump’s response ‘Yes, but what about her emails?’ comeback at fellow rival Hillary Clinton during his presidential campaign seems to present a similarly flawed equivalence. Furthermore, the parallel drawn between the scandal with Ukraine and the action of Biden and his son Hunter was in fact presented as the primary defence argument when faced with national disapproval.
AND LASTLY, THE CORONAVIRUS
The pandemic has stirred up a lot of questions especially pertaining to public policy. Could we also come across false equivalency in this regard? Unfortunately so. When Covid-19 is largely compared to climate change due to its effects on mankind, this gross understatement seems to forego the important differences between the two crises in the sense that not much is known about the virus which puts in an entirely new ballgame altogether. Furthermore, analogies which bring out similarities between car accidents and the virus as a logic to go against lockdowns or national shutdowns is another fallacy, greatly over exaggerating the fact that both of them have killed lakhs of people worldwide.
As a matter of fact, comparing this virus with all the others of the past is as big a mistake to make, given the clear differences in the pace of transmission, lack of vaccine, scale, geopolitical factors, socio-economic crisis and possible global recession. The infolding of Covid-19 has shown us a great number of flaws in our systems, the fallacy of false equivalence is yet another one of them.
Written By- Riya Mathur
( Riya is a third year student of B.A. (Hons.) Economics at Shri Ram College of Commerce. )