Fallacy Friday (August 16, 2013)
Posted on: August 16, 2013
It’s Friday, which means it’s time once again for your Friday Fallacy!
This week we’ll look at the fallacy of equivocation. It comes from the Latin verb “vocare” (to call) and the prefix equi- (the same).
Equivocating is a very common fallacy. Here’s how it might present:
“Evolution is just a theory!”
“We both have faith. I just have faith in God and you have faith in science.”
“Eric Clapton exists. Eric Clapton is God. Therefore God exists.”
In a nutshell, equivocation is fallacious when someone attempts to frame an argument using one sense or definition or a word, and then follow with a conclusion using a different sense or definition of the word.
Related to this is taking quotes out of context. A quote can sometimes mean two completely different things depending on how it’s being used, and it’s very easy to manipulate this, especially if you cut something off in the middle of a sentence or paragraph. In many examples of good writing, authors set up a thought, then contrast it to prove a bigger point. If you just quote the first part, you’ll misrepresent what the author intended. A very famous example comes from Charles Darwin and is used shamelessly by creationists:
“To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.”
What creationists often “neglect” is to finish his thought, where he goes on to say that, despite this, he has no problem believing it:
“If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down. But I can find out no such case.”
To correct our three examples up top:
1) Evolution is just a theory: The word “theory” has two completely different definitions. In the colloquial sense, theory is a synonym for hunch, guess, estimate, conjecture, or gut feeling.
In the scientific sense, it means the complete opposite: A theory is a coherent group of tested, general propositions, commonly regarded as correct by the scientific community, that can be used as principles of explanation and prediction for a class of phenomena. Examples include the theory of gravity, germ theory, the Big Bang theory, and of course, evolution.
2) Faith in modern English means unwavering belief despite a lack of sufficient evidence or despite evidence to the contrary. The Biblical definition for faith (translated from the Hebrew word emunah) comes from Hebrews 11:1, which reads “Faith is the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen” (KJV). In other words, to believe something on faith, or making use of faith, means that you are admitting that a concept is not believable, but with hope, and mistaking an absence of evidence as evidence, you believe it nonetheless. In the words of Mark Twain, “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.” The English word faith comes to us from the Latin fides, fidei, meaning “trust.”
In the scientific sense, the actual word here should be “confidence,” not faith. We have *confidence* in science because we DO have evidence. I mean confidence as in the technical term in probability statistics; in other words we have a large enough sample size and consistent and significant results and therefore can begin to feel comfortable saying, “A pattern is emerging.”
When we have tested something a billion times, and it has worked the same way every time, we feel pretty darn confident that it’s going to work that way the billion+1 time, too. Because of Hume’s problem of induction, we can never absolutely rule out that we’re wrong, but the more we test something and get consistent results, the higher our confidence: 90%, 95%, 99%, 99.9%, and so on. This is wholly different from religious faith, which concerns claims that by definition cannot be tested empirically.
A more-thorough explanation is here:
Now on to…
3) Eric Clapton is certainly a fantastic guitarist, but there is a difference between a guitar god and a mythological supernatural entity that transcends space and time. This is a textbook case of the fallacy of equivocation.
Hope you’ve enjoyed this, and we’ll be back tomorrow with a live stream workshop on informal debating by our Public Relations Director, Dave Muscato, at 10 PM Eastern. Watch our Facebook page and Twitter feed for the link. You can participate by tweeting your questions and comments during the stream to the host, David Viviano, @GammaAtheist. It will be available as a permanent recording on YouTube after the live stream is over, as well.
Have a great weekend!