Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Fun with fallacies: equivocation

This one is just for you, Safiyyah. Something light.

One of the difficulties in reasoning with people is the ambiguity of language. Language can be ambiguous, because most words have more than one meaning. It isn't always obvious that a person is pouring a different meaning into their words than you are in yours.

Some people like to capitalize on the ambiguity of language--especially lawyers.

Let me just make an aside while I'm thinking about it. If you ever want to learn how to make fallacious arguments, watch lawyers. They are experts at using logical fallacies to their advantage. A logical fallacy can seem quite pursuasive to people who have no critical thinking skills. Luckily for lawyers, most people have a complete lack of critical thinking skills. Before I launch into an attack on the educational system in this country, let me get back to my point.

Anyway, the fallacy of equivocation is when you use a word that has two different meanings in two different contexts as if it had the same meaning in both contexts.

I was reading a thing about the fallacy of equivocation one time, and it gave several examples of arguments that committed the fallacy of equivocation. One of them struck me as pretty funny, and I decided to use it for entertainment purposes.

Here's what I did. I went up to a co-working and had the following conversation (I'm reconstructing to the best of my memory--this happened over a year ago):

Sam: What's your favourite thing to eat?

Patricia: Lasagne.

Sam: So there's nothing better than lasagne, huh?

Patricia: Nope.

Sam: What about lima beans? Do you like lima beans?

Patrica: No, not really.

Sam: But they're better than nothing, right? I mean you'd eat them if you had nothing else to eat wouldn't you?

Patricia: Yeah, I guess they're better than not having anything to eat at all.

Sam: Well if lima beans are better than nothing, and nothing is better than lasagna, then lima beans are better than lasagna.

Patricia: Huh?

At this point, I drew her an illustration to explain the transitive property. Here's another example of the transitive property:

Jim is taller than Dan.
Dan is taller than Bob.
Therefore, Jim is taller than Bob.

I was doing the same thing.

Lima beans are better than nothing.
Nothing is better than lasanga.
Therefore, lima beans are better than lasagna.

She finally got it when I put it like this:

Lima beans > nothing.
Nothing > lasagna
So, Lima beans > lasagna

Then for good measure (she's a little slow) I wrote it like this:

Lima beans > nothing > lasagna ==> lima beans > lasagna

When she finally understood the transitive property, she said, "Well, I guess you're right!" I still play that little game with people sometimes.

5 Comments:

At 3/10/2005 1:35 AM , Blogger Safiyyah said...

Hahaha. Your writing's always deep, Sam. Don't think you could manage something light. But that's what keeps me coming back, I guess. The Trinity stuff - not knowing the arguments that well, and not being that interested in knowing them in such detail - it was not as exciting for me. But this stuff's really interesting. I appreciate the effort:)

By the way, are you always this logical and philosophical in person, or is this just your online personality? Just wondering. If I were Patricia, I might have just been scared!

 
At 3/10/2005 7:45 AM , Blogger ephphatha said...

I'm not even always this way on line. In fact I'm hardly ever that way when I'm socializing on the Leatherwall.

 
At 5/09/2005 1:19 PM , Blogger soihgior44 said...

Jim is taller than Dan.
Dan is taller than Bob.
Therefore, Jim is taller than Bob.

Lima beans are better than nothing.
Nothing is better than lasanga.
Therefore, lima beans are better than lasagna.

Both examples demonstrate the fallacy of ‘Affirming the Consequent’.
They are not a ‘fallacy of equivocation’

 
At 10/01/2006 12:17 AM , Blogger Bruce said...

soihgior44 is not right. I teach a logic section in my Rhetoric class, and the fallacy of Affirming the Consequent is actually what the Greeks saw as a hypothetical fallacy (ie one that uses an "If..then" in its construction). "If I live in Denver, I'm in Colorado": Affirming the Consequent fallacy would wrongly assume that "If I'm NOT in Colorado then I'm not in Denver. There could be a Denver, Idaho or Denver, Michigan. With both Affirming the Consequent and Denying the Antecedent fallacies (another hypothetical), you need to add "If AND ONLY IF" to the beginning.

Anyway, more than you needed to know. The examples about Lima beans and nothing and lasagna ARE fallacies of "ambiguity", in this case equivocating on the term "nothing". So Sam is correct in calling these Equivocation.

 
At 10/01/2006 9:39 AM , Blogger broose said...

Bruce again. I blew it. Actually, "Affirming the Consequent" in my example of "If I live in Denver, then I'm in Colorado" would be to AFFIRM the second part, that is "If I'm in Colorado".....we can't assume the first part, that "I'm (necessarily) in Denver". There's 1000's of cities, towns, farms, ranches, parks, etc in Colorado.

Sorry for blowing this. Anyway, Sam had his fallacies dead on. His lima beans example was a good one of equivocation.

 

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