Equivocation is a fallacy that involves the use of one word to mean two or more meanings, creating ambiguity. The word has one meaning in one part of the argument and another meaning in another part.
For example, you could say that the penalty for breaking the law is imprisonment. A space rocket violated the law of gravity. Therefore, the space rocket should go to prison. Here, we’ve use the concept of ‘the law’ from one context and tied it to its use in another context.
The equivocation fallacy is often used in humor and irony. We generally find it funny due to its absurdity. However, sometimes, people fall into making this logical fallacy in their arguments, as well.
Equivocation Fallacy Examples
1. A Dog is a Tree?
Scenario: All trees have bark. Every dog barks. Therefore, a dog is a tree.
Ambiguous Phrase: Bark
This quintessential equivocation fallacy is one that every professor uses to teach their students. Here, the term ‘bark’ is being used in two separate contexts. When the contexts are merged, the logic becomes fallacious.
In the first instance, we’re talking about tree bark. In the second, we’re talking about the sound a dog makes. When we combine them in the third sentence, we come up with the absurd idea that dogs and trees must be the same thing because they are both associated with the word ‘bark’.
This extreme version of an equivocation fallacy allows us to contemplate how people use words ambiguously and out of context in order to create false logic.
2. “Doctor of Philosophy”
Scenario: A person who received his Ph.D in mathematics is asked questions about philosophy by his friend. The person responds “I don’t know about philosophy!” The friend asks, “Wasn’t your degree doctor of philosophy?”
The term Ph.D stands for ‘doctor of philosophy’. However, you can get a Ph.D in any topic, not just philosophy. Today, this word philosophy in Ph.D has become more-or-less meaningless.
However, in this scenario with semi-humor and semi-ironic content, the friend decides to grill his friend about being good at philosophy because he has a doctorate of philosophy. The irony exists because he knows nothing about philosophy – his Ph.D is in mathematics!
In the first context, the term ‘philosophy’ refers to a degree that has been awarded to the mathematician, and in the second context, the term refers to a specific field of knowledge. This has caused confusion and ambiguity.
3. “Is there a Doctor on the Plane?”
Scenario: A flight attendant goes onto the plane’s loudspeaker and calls “Is there a doctor on the plane? We have a medical emergency” One person in the crowd said, “I am a doctor.” The nurse says, “Please give medical attention to this man immediately.” The person answered this question, “I can’t … I’m a doctor of philosophy!”
Ambiguous Phrase: Doctor
In this fallacy example, which is another variation of our previous example, the term ‘doctor’ has been used ambiguously. In the first instance, it was used in the everyday meaning of the term: a medical doctor. In the second instance, it was use to refer to a person with a Ph.D (doctor of philosophy).
The irony occurs because a person with a Ph.D usually doesn’t have any medical training. So, they can’t treat the poor person who needs help!
This is one reason why I never go by the name ‘Dr’ even though I have a Ph.D and ‘Dr’ is written on the door to my office at work! Outside of academia, it causes ambiguity and can become part of an equivocation fallacy.
4. Right Wingers are Right!
Scenario: A conservative lawmaker says “I’m right-wing. I like small government, freedom of speech, and traditional values. One could say that I’m on the right side of every issue.”
Ambiguous Phrase: Right
In the first instance, the term ‘right’ is used for right-wing, which is a political philosophy. In the second instance, the term is used as a substitute for ‘correct’. The two terms have been conflated here to create comic effect.
The lawmaker is insinuating that right-wing people are always correct because they have the word ‘right’ in their descriptor. Unfortunately, this is an equivocation fallacy because the use of the term ‘right’ differs from one sentence to the next, yet he’s trying to establish continuity.
The term ‘right-wing’ doesn’t originate from the word ‘correct’. It originates from republican France, where the conservatives used to sit on the right-hand side of the parliament while the liberals say on the left-hand side.
5. My dog has no nose!
Scenario: The person says to his friend, “My dog has no nose!” Then his friend asks “Then, how does it smell?”. The dog owner’s response is: “Terrible!”
Ambiguous Phrase: Smell
This dialogue is a typical example of the use of equivocation fallacies in humor. The confusion generated here is that ‘smell’ can be ambiguously interpreted.
On the one hand, someone can do smelling, while on the other hand, they can have a smell. Here, the two uses of the term are used side-by-side to achieve comic effect.
The idea is that the questioner wants to know how the dog achieves the ability to smell. However, his friend replies that the dog has a bad smell, thereby responding with the wrong use of the term.
6. Damn Radicals!
Scenario: The person tells his partner that the cause of aging is free radicals. His wife’s response is as follows: “All evil comes from radicals!”.
Ambiguous Phrase: Radical
In this dialogue, the person is actually referring to “free radicals” in the medical sense. These are molecules in the body that supposedly cause the aging process.
However, his wife, who understands “radicals” in a political context, falls into the typical fallacy of equivocation by saying that all evil comes from radicals – as in, radical people.
Thus, the conflation of two different understandings of the term ‘radical’ has been achieved here to construct a fallacy – i.e. a logical inconsistency – that has meant the two conversationalists are not on the same page!
7. Having Faith
Scenario: The priest told me I should have faith. I have faith that I will strike it rich on the stock market this year. Therefore, the priest should be happy with me.
Ambiguous Phrase: Faith
In this scenario, the priest uses the word “faith” to mean that one must believe in the existence of God without resorting to any proof. However, the person talking to the priest understands the word “faith” to mean “belief that something will happen”.
Thus, he says he has faith … but not necessarily in god. He’s turned the priest’s ambiguity against him, and allowed himself to intentionally misinterpret the message of the priest.
At his next confessional, he may insist that the priest should be very happy because he took the priest’s advice. He went out into the world and focussed more on having faith. The priest, of course, will accuse him of employing the equivocation fallacy to misrepresent the priest’s message.
8. The Laws of Nature
Scenario: “All laws were created by someone. Nature has laws. Therefore, there is a God who is the creator.”
Ambiguous Phrase: Laws
This equivocation fallacy is one that we commonly come across among people arguing for the existence of God. In this fallacy, they are conflating laws governing society and laws governing nature.
Legal laws (e.g. laws set by a government) obviously have human creators. In fact, we can go and look at the bills created in parliament and see who signed their name against them!
But laws of nature do not have an obvious creator in the same sense – they’re simply a set of physical constraints on how the world can operate. People who are religious may say that there is a creator, but humanists and scientists might argue that the laws come from physics, not a god per se.
Whether we believe in God or not, this is perhaps not the best argument for God. In this scenario, the equivocation fallacy is employed by conflating legal laws and physical laws, in order to prosecute evidence for God.
This also happens to be an example of a false dilemma fallacy.
9. Cotton is Light
Scenario: Cotton is light. What is light is not dark. So, cotton cannot be dark.
Ambiguous Phrase: Light
In this example, we see an erroneous conclusion based on the multiple meanings of the word “light”. In the first sentence, the word “light” is used to refer to the relative weight of cotton, while in the second sentence we encounter use of “light” to express color.
And as a result, we are faced with the absurd conclusion from this confusion that cotton is “light” and therefore “cannot be dark”.
A child might make this equivocation fallacy if they find some blackened cotton, and fails to realize that it’s cotton because ‘it’s not light’.
10. Miracles Happen!
Scenario: We witness many miracles such as cyborgs and space travel every passing day. So when atheists say there is no miracle, they are wrong.
Ambiguous Phrase: Miracles
In this example, the person conflates religious miracles and the hyperbolic use of the term ‘miracle’ to express wonderment.
In the first sentence, the term miracle is employed to indicate that something is marvelous. Isn’t it amazing that people can travel to space! We may hyperbolically call this a miracle, but in reality, it’s simply a feat of science.
In the second sentence, the person states that atheists are wrong in their claim that so-called miracles do not actually exist. In this example, “miracle” is used to mean something achieved by a God that defies nature.
- Begging the Question Examples
- Hasty Generalization Examples
- Red Herring Examples
- Slippery Slope Fallacy Examples
- Bandwagon Effect Examples
- Ad Hominem Fallacy
Equivocation fallacies are fallacies that people often fall into, consciously or unconsciously, especially in discussions about politics, religion, or science in daily life.
Therefore, in arguments accompanied by seriousness, i.e. when we are sure that the parties are not joking with each other, it can be very useful to be aware of the equivocation fallacy to prevent any of the members of the dialogue from reaching erroneous conclusions by using a word with more than one meaning.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]