Skeptics Wednesday: The Balance Fallacyby Don Lacey on Jun. 27, 2012, under Freethought, History, Logic, Quotations, Reason, Sanity, Science, Skepticism, Willful Ignorance
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! Dara O’Briain
The topics of Skeptics Wednesday are chosen from things I see around me. This fallacy was pointed out to me by one of the members of the Skeptics of Tucson. Just after the meeting, one of the new attendees suggested that she enjoyed the meeting but she felt that as Skeptics we shouldn’t take positions on things. I pointed out that just because Skeptics question everything, that doesn’t mean they can’t take an informed position on issues. She explained that she’s a retired journalist and said something about considering both sides of the issue…I couldn’t dwell on the conversation because I was packing up the equipment and getting ready to clear the room. The conversation continued and it turns out she was looking for equal consideration of opposing views to some of the subjects covered. This may be called the “Fairness Fallacy” in some circles but the Fairness Fallacy has been adopted to refer to a fallacy in which people assume that life is fair…and it isn’t.
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.
Journalists easily fall into this fallacy and we see it all the time but it may be a hard fallacy to avoid. It requires us to make a judgment before delivering a case or at least it requires that we give more information than just presenting the two sides. Confirmation bias can really screw this up too. If I’m not “fair” in my research, then I can, in the name of avoiding the “Balance Fallacy” present information that is heavily weighted according to my bias.
Skepticism is HARD!
The RationalWIKI article gives examples of the “Balance Fallacy:”
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.
Medicine. Hard cold evidence and the majority of doctors agree that vaccines do not cause autism but the media often give 50:50 airtime to the mainstream view and doctors who say otherwise. This is great for selling newsprint but it’s not doing humanity any good. Andrew Wakefield is one greedy, discredited doctor but in the news he’s on equal footing with almost every other doctor in his field and essentially the entire medical community. It’s not just that though. An emotional appeal such as “mommy sense” plays better in the news than clinical trials and scientific consensus. Once a newsman can excite his readers through raw emotion, the facts and figures don’t stand a chance. A string of meaningless anecdotes then caries the same weight as several lifetime’s worth of careful scientific study.
The balance fallacy is everywhere. To be fair, the newsmen and women believe that this is the way to go because they are often reporting on things they really don’t know about. It’s up to us as media consumers to recognize the fallacies and biases. I think the quote by Dara O’Briain summarizes the situation nicely but if you have six minutes check out this more complete standup routine on the subject.