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“”There's a kind of notion that everyone's opinion is equally valid. My arse! A bloke who's been a professor of dentistry for 40 years doesn't have a debate with some idjit who removes his teeth with string and a door!
The balance fallacy, also known as false balance, occurs when two sides of an argument are assumed to have equal value regardless of their respective merits. The application of the fallacy leads to two major problems:
- Firstly, it can lead to equal exposure to arguments despite their merits or relevance. This may arise due to a misunderstanding of probability; that two outcomes or positions lead to a probability of 50:50 for each, and so both deserve an equal chance to put themselves forward. In fact, probability is not necessarily equal.
- Secondly, it can lead to the belief that the truth must lie somewhere in between the two opposing sides, when in fact it's possible that one side is completely wrong. In this context the balance fallacy may be the result of attempts to reach a compromise between mutually exclusive positions, as often found in political debate where there is not necessarily an objective "truth", as such, to be found behind a political policy.
Avoiding the balance fallacy requires objective criteria for assessing arguments, and cannot rely on just giving all arguments equal exposure for the sake of fairness. Arguments must be assessed using criteria such as formal logic, scholarly consensus and empirical evidence to see if a legitimate controversy exists between two viewpoints. Avoiding the balance fallacy does not entitle someone to the freedom to reject any and all criticism because they claim to have sufficiently "proven" their position, a tactic used by Ayn Rand and others.
Wikipedia avoids the balance fallacy (to some degree) with its policy of not giving undue weight to minority viewpoints or fringe theories in its articles. RationalWiki, on the other hand, avoids the balance fallacy very much by giving fringe theories undue weight, and calling them bullshit from start to finish.
Teaching the controversy
An example of the balance fallacy is found in the Discovery Institute's campaign for American schools to "teach the controversy" in science lessons, giving equal weight to the theory of evolution and intelligent design criticisms of it, although these criticisms are reliant on creationist religious views overwhelmingly discredited within the scientific community.
While evolution bears the brunt of the balance fallacy, issues of health and science suffer from news reports wanting to put forward balanced views. Despite evidence and the vast, vast majority of doctors agreeing that vaccines do not cause autism, the media often give 50:50 airtime to the mainstream view and doctors who say otherwise. This usually isn't helped by the likes of the British Medical Association (during the MMR scare of 2000-2004) bending over backwards to find in the media the people with the contrary viewpoints they want to put to the public. The main issue with health scares is that while balance is sought in terms of content and exposure, it's rarely ever achieved in terms of what the public perceive, not least because if balance was properly achieved, the audience wouldn't go away thinking that there was a controversy. In debates regarding health, the evidence side will usually be represented by a doctor who states facts, figures and research, while the paranoid side will be represented by some "human interest" (Jenny McCarthy for example). While the "human interest" side would cite no facts or figures, their emotive stories resonate far more with the public who can empathise with an individual more than they can do with a clinical trial. Therefore the message received by the audience is more "individuals are concerned and are suffering, why aren't scientists taking note of them" rather than the more accurate "the plural of anecdote is not data".
In political journalism, a similar phenonomen often referred to as "Broderism" after David Broder, former senior editor at the Washington Post. It is often said that there is no single scandal, no matter how overwhelmingly partisan, that he cannot find some instance of the other party doing something maybe, kind of, almost close to being in the ballpark of the same thing, so that every thing wrong in Washington is the fault of both parties. An example of Broderism would be that, while many Republican elected officials have embraced Birtherism wholeheartedly, this one single Democratic supporter is a 9/11 Truther, so each party is equally crazy.
- Here is a cartoonist giving "equal time" to people who believe the sun is hot and cold
- Here we hear are exposed to theories about broccoli and garden gnomes.
- Both Sides!
- Pseudosymmetry (Of Scientific Authority) in The Skeptic's Dictionary
- Blinded by Science: How "Balanced" Coverage Lets the Scientific Fringe Hijack Reality, Chris Mooney
- Jay Rosen on why climate science reporting is so bad, Joe Romm
- Boykoff, Maxwell T. and Jules M. Boykoff. Balance as bias: Global warming and the US prestige press. Global Environmental Change 14 (2004) 125–136.
| Articles about logical fallacies|
|Affirming the consequent||Denying the antecedent|
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