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Language, Logic, and Action Pt. 5: Fallacy of Equivocation

by Hiram R. Diaz III

In this post, we will be looking at the fallacy du jour being used in most covid-19 discussions, namely the fallacy of equivocation. According to the Texas State Department of Philosophy,
The fallacy of equivocation occurs when a key term or phrase in an argument is used in an ambiguous way, with one meaning in one portion of the argument and then another meaning in another portion of the argument.1
Here is a humorous example that is frequently used in logic textbooks –
Hot dogs are better than nothing.
Nothing is better than steak.
Therefore, hot dogs are better than steak.
We can retranslate the argument as follows –
Having hot dogs is better than not having food to eat.  
Steak is qualitatively better than all other foods.
Therefore, having hot dogs is qualitatively superior to all other foods.
The argument underscores the necessity of disambiguation, as does the following, more serious, example makes clear.
Whoever has commanded genocide is morally corrupt.
God has commanded genocide.
Therefore, God is morally corrupt.
Here the word genocide is being used with two different meanings, viz. the connotative and denotative meanings. Denotatively, genocide is the destruction/killing of a particular people group. Connotatively, however, genocide is the malicious racially or socio-politically motivated destruction of a particular people group. These meanings are not at all identical, as is plain to see when we revise the argument given above.
Whoever has commanded the malicious, racially or socio-political motivated destruction of a particular people group is morally corrupt.
God has commanded the destruction/killing of a particular people group (e.g. the Amalekites).
Therefore, God is morally corrupt.
The logical problem here is that God is being maligned as morally corrupt for an action that he did not perform, namely the malicious, racially or socio-politically motivated destruction of a particular group.

Currently, the fallacy of equivocation has been used by the various “medical experts” and governing authorities to justify the continual, in fact perpetual, lockdown of certain states and cities in America. 

 The argument is as follows –
If COVID-19 cases are surging, then the lockdowns must continue.
COVID-19 cases are surging.
Therefore, the lockdowns must continue.
While the argument form is valid, the argument is invalid because it uses the phrase “COVID-19 cases” differently in each premise. In the first premise, the phrase refers to confirmed cases (i.e. cases which are putting a strain on the medical system and/or leading to mass death), whereas the second premise refers to case numbers as a whole (i.e. confirmed and probable cases). To see that this is the case, we need to look at how the media was presenting this argument early on in COVID-19’s career.

For instance, consider the following statements made in a article dating March 10th of this year. The article, “Coronavirus cases are pushing Italy’s hospitals to the brink,” states the following –
Europe’s largest coronavirus outbreak is putting unprecedented strain on the Italian health-care system, with hospitals in the worst-affected areas close to the breaking point.

Italy went from having a handful of cases to the second-largest death toll after China in less than three weeks, flooding intensive-care units with hundreds of patients. If the government’s efforts to contain the spread are unsuccessful – and the lax enforcement of a travel ban bodes ill – experts warn that a new influx would be nearly impossible to manage.2
The authors equate cases with patients (i.e. confirmed cases), arguing that if the lockdowns are not successful then hospitals will be overwhelmed by patients (i.e. confirmed cases). Similarly, Politico journalist Dan Goldberg in his April 25th article “Hospitals’ health is key driver of push to lift lockdowns,” writes –
Governors eager to lift pandemic lockdowns are zeroing in on the health of their hospitals.

If emergency rooms are overwhelmed with coronavirus cases, a state can’t move ahead. But if they’re coping, it may be enough for some states to reopen economies and let businesses start to stagger back.

Much of the public discussion about easing restrictions is dominated by talk of the virus peaking. But that doesn’t just mean people showing up in distress. It’s also a question of whether hospitals can handle it. And you can’t begin to repair a state without that.3
The author equates medical system overwhelmers, i.e. patients, with cases. These are, in other words, confirmed cases that are being discussed. If the number of confirmed cases spikes/continues to rise, then lockdowns must be continued. If, however, the number of cases decreases – i.e. if the number of confirmed cases/patients – then the states may be capable of bringing their lockdowns to an end.

This renders the current use of the argument fallacious, for confirmed cases of COVID-19 are not spiking. Rather, the total number of cases – confirmed cases and probable cases – is spiking. This is due to the fact that the CDC case counting guidelines were updated on April 5, 2020, and greatly broadened the criteria one must meet in order to be officially counted as a COVID-19 case (whether confirmed or probable).4 The argument changes definitions of “COVID-19 cases” in the second premise; therefore, the argument falls apart.

On its own, this does not mean that the lockdowns – assuming that they were ever anything more than a means of political control – do not have to continue. What it does mean is that the states, cities, and governing officials who have argued this way have not provided evidence that the lockdowns are justifiable. Instead, they have either demonstrated intellectual ineptitude or moral corruption.

2 Speciale, Alessandro, et al.,, Accessed August 22, 2020. (emphasis added)
4 See “Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) 2020 Interim Case Definition, Approved April 5, 2020,” Centers for Disease Control,