Balance fallacy

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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 eejit who removes his teeth with string and a door!
—Dara Ó Briain[1]

The balance fallacy, also known as false balance,[2] occurs when two sides of an argument are assumed to have equal value regardless of their respective merits. This is primarily a problem in the media, where confrontational or adversarial journalism might present more of a controversy than actually exists. It is effectively the opposite of bias - whereas bias over-emphasises one view to the detriment of another legitimate, well-supported view to give the impression of one being favoured, false balance over-emphasises a minority or unsupported view to the detriment of a well-supported view to give the impression that neither is favoured.


[edit] Problems

That's the problem with our obsession to always see two sides of every issue equally... It means we have to pretend there are always two truths, and the side that doesn't know anything has something to say.
Bill Maher[3]

The application of the fallacy leads to two major problems:

  • Firstly, it can lead to equal exposure to arguments despite their lack of 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 it's very much possible that one side is completely wrong. In this context the fallacy is sometimes known as the argument to moderation or argumentum ad temperantiam, and 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, however.

Wikipedia avoids the balance fallacy (to some degree) with its policy of not giving undue weight[4] to minority viewpoints or fringe theories[5] in its articles. RationalWiki, on the other hand, avoids the balance fallacy by calling fringe theories bullshit from start to finish.[6]

On the other hand, C-Span, as a government-funded network, is required to give equal weight to all sides. Sometimes this has positive effects, such as broadcasting debates involving third-party and independent candidates for elected office. However, this also once forced the network to give equal time to an advocate of Holocaust denial after a program about the Holocaust.

[edit] 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.

[edit] Health scares

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."

[edit] Broderism

In political journalism, a similar phenonomen often referred to as "Broderism," after the late 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 couldn't 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, these one or two Democratic supporters are 9/11 truthers,[7][8][9] so each party is equally crazy.

On Fark, similar arguments are referred to as "BSABSVR," short for "Both Sides Are Bad, So Vote Republican."

[edit] In discussions

Simply drawing attention to some perceived flaw of a position or group can be seen as a wholesale attack on the entire position or group. Thus, people often engage in the balance fallacy not out of any true belief that both flaws that they are mentioning are equal, but rather out of desire to avoid tu quoque attacks. This then often backfires and results in accusations of being a concern troll.

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

[edit] Footnotes

  1. Respectful Insolence - Homeopathy and quacks versus science
  2. Understanding Science - Beware of false balance (Berkeley)
  3. Bill Maher lays waste to Global Warming deniers (YouTube)
  4. See the Wikipedia article on Wikipedia Policy: Undue weight.
  5. See the Wikipedia article on Wikipedia Policy: Fringe theories.
  6. A notable exception is Jesus mythicism, considered a fringe position on Wikipedia, but respected on RationalWiki, for good reasons. As critics of Historical Jesus research have pointed out, most "experts" who insist on a HJ are New Testament researchers who are primarily theologists and literature experts with some historical training, and overwhelmingly Christian or formerly Christian, while secular professional historians whose research focuses on ancient history tend to be less insistent. Moreover, the multitude of often mutually radically contradictory conceptions about the HJ is highly unusual for people whose historical existence is secure and does not inspire confidence in the field, as does the employment of authenticity criteria unique to biblical studies. In contrast, Socrates researchers admit to the serious difficulties with attempts to reconstruct details about the historical Socrates and his teachings much more readily, even though the evidence for him is much better, which is why his historical existence is not controversial. While Jesus mythicism admittedly attracts lots of crackpots and shoddy arguments, there are quite sane, competent and methodically rigorous HJ sceptics and even outright advocates of mythicism, such as Doherty and Carrier, who tend to be quite annoyed by low-quality mythicism, and many secular sceptics feel that it is the HJ research, that, even though respected in the mainstream, is almost equally bullshit as some of the more outlandish variations on the Jesus myth theory.
  7. Cynthia McKinney (D-GA) compares 9/11 Truthers with Civil Rights Activists at Benefit, InfoWars
  8. What the hell, Mike Gravel (D-AK)?, 911TruthNews
  9. We say "supporter" since every Democratic Congressperson who's expressed Truther beliefs has either changed their opinion or (justly) been hounded out of office by now.
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