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Todd Akin: An LSAT Equivocation Fallacy in Action

I don’t think there’s a single person out there with an internet connection or television who hasn’t heard of Missouri Rep. Todd Akin’s stunning comments concerning pregnancy and rape. (Here they are, in case you just woke up from a coma.) Not only does it evince a belief in junk science (which, unsurprisingly, is also reflected in his disbelief in global warming), but it gives us a hint into how his flawed thinking on the subject developed.

First off, after being disavowed by the entire Republican Party, Akin was quick to point out that he misspoke, and he actually meant to say ‘forcible rape.’ As any LSAT prep student can attest, that’s a straight up equivocation fallacy; he treated two words as meaning the same thing, when they actually don’t. When a lot of your job is choosing the right word at the right time, it’s problematic enough that you can’t use the right word. But what’s even more scary is the implications of his equivocation.

Some call it a Freudian slip, but generally it’s not a subconscious desire to misspeak in favor of what else is on your mind that causes it to happen. Instead, it’s a reflection of how your brain stores and accesses data.

In order to reinforce information learned, the brain creates connections between new ideas and older, similar ideas. When you eat a new type of apple, you don’t store the abstraction by itself in your brain – instead, the flavor, smell, and color are all related to previous information you’ve gathered about apples so the new information is reinforced by the old, and vice versa.

When trying to access that stored information, you sometimes miss the mark a bit and instead recall information stored in other areas. You know how it goes – someone asks you a question in Trivial Pursuit, and you can remember every piece of information about that movie except the name of the lead actress. Then, you remember the name of a different actress with whom you always confuse the one in question.

So what Rep. Akin’s equivocation shows us is that, in his mind, the ideas of a rape being ‘forcible’ and a rape being ‘legitimate’ are intimately related. When he went to pull ‘forcible’ from his brain (which has long been the buzzword of those who don’t buy into the ‘Rape is Rape’ truism), instead it pulled out ‘legitimate.’ He didn’t correct it because, to him, it sounded right. It was, at the very least, close enough to what he meant. In short, Rep. Akin doesn’t believe that rape is rape, but he believes that ‘legitimate’ rape is ‘forcible’ rape.

This type of backwards thinking might almost make him pitiable if he didn’t have the power to introduce bills that limit the options held by women after such an assault.

So as the debates heat up leading to November, remember that equivocation is a very common fallacy both on the LSAT and when people are speaking off the cuff. And it’s not just a flaw in their argument; it can be used to see how they really feel about certain subjects.