False Equivalence Fallacy | Definition & Examples

The false equivalence fallacy involves treating multiple situations or viewpoints as equivalent despite their significant differences.

This logical fallacy sometimes results from faulty reasoning, but it is often used deliberately to lead an audience to a desired conclusion.

False equivalence example
During live coverage of a peaceful protest, a reporter comments “As I’ve been reporting on the protests, the disruption brings to mind the recent riot that took place when our city’s team lost a football game. Rioters broke the windows of local businesses and set fire to a police car. The impact of these disruptive protests and riots on our communities is truly troubling. Businesses suffer, streets are barricaded, and law enforcement faces serious challenges. The city must crack down on these demonstrations.”

In this example of a false equivalence fallacy, the reporter treats a peaceful protest and a violent sports-related riot as if they were essentially equal. This commentary gives the misleading impression that the protest is as dangerous as the riot despite its lack of violent intentions or actions.

The false equivalence fallacy can occur in contexts such as politics, media reports, and casual debates when significantly different events or circumstances are treated as if they were essentially the same.

What is false equivalence fallacy?

The false equivalence fallacy occurs when arguments or scenarios that are meaningfully different are treated as if they had equal merit or significance. This mistake often involves overlooking differences in relevance, context, or magnitude. Fallacy of false balance and fallacy of false equivalence are alternative names for the same error.

Although people sometimes make this mistake unintentionally because of a lack of understanding, the false equivalence fallacy can also be used intentionally to advance an argument or manipulate an audience.

The false equivalence fallacy is an informal logical fallacy, meaning that it refers to a flaw in reasoning rather than a violation of the rules of formal logic.

False equivalence fallacies are also commonly considered fallacies of ambiguity because they involve a conflation of similar but meaningfully different ideas or situations.

The moral equivalence fallacy is a type of false equivalence in which different actions or situations are falsely treated as having the same moral significance.

Other fallacies of ambiguity are misleading in different ways:

  • Equivocation: Confusing the audience by using the same term in multiple ways within an argument
  • Amphiboly: Creating ambiguity by using confusing sentence structure or grammar
  • Accent: Altering the meaning of an argument by placing emphasis on certain words or phrases

False equivalence fallacy examples

Examples of the false equivalence fallacy can be found in various contexts, including political debates, media discussions, and everyday arguments.

False equivalence example in public health
In a discussion on public health, a politician treats a long-discredited study claiming vaccines cause harm as equivalent in value to the extensive evidence supporting vaccine efficacy and safety.

This false equivalence misleads by suggesting that two contradictory positions are equally supported by science, despite the fact that a vast body of research supports one viewpoint and not the other.

In the news media, the false equivalence fallacy occurs when journalists or commentators present different views or scenarios as having equal weight and importance despite evidence to the contrary. This practice can mislead the audience despite appearing to be a fair and unbiased approach to reporting.

False equivalence example in media
A news commentator equates the environmental impact of using plastic straws with that of industrial pollution, suggesting that individual actions, such as refusing a straw, are as impactful as regulating large-scale industrial emissions.

This comparison is an example of the false equivalence fallacy because it minimizes the disproportionate role of industrial activities in environmental degradation, misleading the public about the effectiveness of individual actions versus systemic changes.

Why is the false equivalence fallacy a problem?

The false equivalence fallacy is problematic in several ways:

  • It distorts understanding. False equivalence fallacies mislead by obscuring important distinctions necessary for a clear understanding of an issue.
  • It hinders critical thinking and decision-making. By simplifying complex issues, false equivalencies impede the ability to analyze situations critically and make well-informed decisions.
  • It undermines a speaker’s trustworthiness. Committing the false equivalence fallacy can give an impression of intellectual dishonesty and erode the audience’s trust.
  • It exacerbates societal polarization. By reinforcing divisive narratives, false equivalencies can contribute to societal division, making constructive dialogue and cooperation more difficult to achieve.

How can you respond to a false equivalence fallacy?

To respond constructively to a false equivalence fallacy, consider the following strategies:

  • Recognize the fallacy: If you note significant differences in relevant aspects of the subjects that are being equated, you are probably responding to a false equivalence fallacy.
  • Explain the differences: Detail the key differences that invalidate the comparison, focusing on specific aspects such as context, magnitude, implications, or other characteristics.
  • Offer a better comparison: If applicable, suggest a more accurate comparison that reflects the true nature of the subjects involved.

Frequently asked questions about false equivalence fallacy

What is the difference between the false equivalence fallacy and the false analogy fallacy?

False equivalence fallacies and false analogy fallacies both involve arguing a point by making faulty comparisons. However, there is a key difference:

  • False equivalence fallacy: Treating two significantly different situations or viewpoints as if they were equivalent (e.g., “It’s unfair to platform a NASA scientist without giving equal time to a flat earther; both are just expressing their opinions”)
  • False analogy fallacy (or faulty analogy): Comparing two things that are similar in some way, but not similar enough to support the conclusion drawn (e.g., “Banning guns to reduce school shootings is as ridiculous as banning kitchen knives to reduce kitchen accidents; both problems are really caused by humans”)
What logical fallacies involve false comparisons?

Logical fallacies that involve false comparisons include the following:

  • False equivalence fallacy: Incorrectly treating two different arguments or scenarios as equally significant or valid when they are not
  • False analogy fallacy: Drawing comparisons between two things that are not sufficiently similar, leading to an invalid inference
  • False dichotomy fallacy: Presenting a situation as having only two options or outcomes, ignoring the possibility of other alternatives
What is the difference between the false equivalence fallacy and the false dilemma fallacy?

Both the false equivalence fallacy and the false dilemma fallacy present flawed reasoning by oversimplifying complex situations or comparisons, but there is a difference:

  • False equivalence fallacy: Incorrectly treating two different arguments or scenarios as equally significant or valid when they are not (e.g., comparing a minor traffic violation to a serious crime)
  • False dilemma fallacy: Falsely presenting only two options or outcomes when there are actually more possibilities, thereby oversimplifying the situation (e.g., “You’re either with us or against us”)
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Magedah Shabo

Magedah is the author of Rhetoric, Logic, & Argumentation and Techniques of Propaganda and Persuasion. She began her career in the educational publishing industry and has over 15 years of experience as a writer and editor. Her books have been used in high school and university classrooms across the US, including courses at Harvard and Johns Hopkins. She has taught ESL from elementary through college levels.