The logical fallacy of equivocation is committed when someone uses the same word in different meanings in an argument, implying that the word means the same each time. For example, someone asserts that I have “faith” in science, and then implies this is the same as religious faith. This argument (that I have to refute with the same friend, periodically), seems to be saying that since I have not personally performed every single scientific experiment ever performed, by every scientist, in the history of the world – since I haven’t personally performed them all - I can’t know for sure that they have been performed at all. Therefore if I believe what I read about science, I must have “faith” in science. This is the same as religious faith, and therefore science is my religion.
Of course, the correct word to describe my view of science is “trust”, not “faith”. I have trust in science because (1) I have evidence that science works (look at all the products of science around you), and (2) there is evidence that science is self-correcting, and that if some scientist just made something up to con the rest of the world, another scientist would eventually expose the fraud. Of course, I can’t prove that all scientific experiments actually took place as described, and perhaps that’s where my friend’s confusion lies. But I do have evidence; therefore accepting science is not faith. The fallacy is to say that trust, based on evidence, is the same as blind faith based on no evidence at all. The ploy is to use the word “faith” for both of these definitions, but then to imply they both mean religious blind faith.
Recently it struck me that New Agers (and other woos) employ a slightly more subtle version of equivocation. You can see an example in this comment by author Daniel Pinchbeck. He is replying to my criticism that his book appears to center around the Mayan prophecy that 2012 will bring about the end of the world as we know it. He wrote:
"The world as we know it" ending in 2012 is flap copy - but it is probably true in any case, Mayan Calendar or not, when you combine the effects of climate change, resource depletion, and the increasing toxification of the environment, plus proliferation of WMDs etc. Species extinction is also passing a critical threshold, so that if we don't make an ecological u-turn in the next few years, it may be irreversible.
Note the double speak – how he’s trying to have it both ways? He backs away from the Mayan prophesy because he knows it’s nonsense, and instead introduces things he thinks are more believable – climate change, extinctions, etc. The idea is I’ll be drawn in (because I can’t deny global warming, etc), and I have to agree with him. Just like I “have” to agree with my friend that I can’t personally prove the big bang happened and therefore I have faith in science. So I agree the world is in crisis and then Bazam! - I’ve just agreed to the premise of his book, namely that the Mayan prophesy is real. (And despite the weasel words about “flap copy”, that is one of its premises.) Sneaky. Clever though.
I experienced this fallacy at a dinner party recently. Some people were talking about the absurd What The Bleep Do We Know!? film: specifically the “Indians didn’t see the ships” myth. For those who haven’t heard about this, a premise of the film is that we can create our own reality with the powers of our minds only. It’s standard Newage drivel drawing on distorted interpretations of quantum mechanics among other things. Anyway, one example given in the film, to support the premise, is how when Columbus first arrived in the West Indies, the natives were literally unable to see his ships. Why? Because they had never seen ships before, so ships did not exist in their reality.
When I pushed these people on the absurdity of this claim, they started to retreat to lesser versions of the myth. For example, they suggested perhaps the Indians just didn’t realize they were large ships containing people. Or, perhaps they didn’t realize the significance of the ships – that they contained colonizers who would steal their lands and kill most of them off. See how the story has now been downgraded to something believable? But this was the same shtick as with the Mayan prophesy. Surely I must agree the Indians might not have realized the significance of the ships? How could I not see this might have been true? And the moment I agree to this possibility - Bazam! - I’ve just agreed to the absurd premise of the film, and all my other criticisms of it have been refuted. They have got me to agree to a lesser, more believable version of the story, but are using acceptance of that lesser version to show the premise supported by the woo version is true.
Debating people like this can be frustrating - a bit like trying to nail jelly to the wall. Just when you think you have nailed the absurdity of something they say, their story slips almost imperceptibly to something less woo, and you find you have to agree with them. You have to be focused to prevent them from claiming victory as they slide back to the woo point that started the argument. Specifically, you have to be clear about the different versions of the story that are now being discussed, and you have to push them to say which ones they believe. If they believe the woo version, then ask them for the evidence. If they are equivocating about a lesser version, point out that this lesser version does not support the premise that they want to prove. Keep a clear head as they slide between the different versions of the story. Point out they are equivocating – using different versions of the story but implying that both support the woo premise.
An interesting question is do they realize they are doing this? My view is that most of them don’t: their thought processes are so muddled that they really don’t see they are equivocating. After all, if they could think clearly, they wouldn’t believe the stuff they do believe, would they?
Edited to add:
Check out this comment that in an incredibly timely manner, demonstrates again equivocation around the “Indians didn’t see the ships” myth. As I said – muddled thinking.