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Logic and rhetoric
“”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|
The balance fallacy is an informal logical fallacy that occurs when two sides of an argument are assumed to have equal or comparable value regardless of their respective merits, which (in turn) can lead to the conclusion that the answer to a problem is always to be found between two extremes. The latter is effectively an inverse false dilemma, discarding the two extremes rather than the middle.
While the rational position on a topic is often between two extremes, this cannot be assumed without actually considering the evidence. Sometimes the extreme position is actually the correct one, and sometimes the entire spectrum of belief is wrong, and truth exists in an orthogonal direction that hasn't yet been considered.
Balance is often a problem in the media, where confrontational or adversarial journalism might present more of a controversy about some topic than actually exists, giving equal time to fringe minority viewpoints to draw in viewers. 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.
- false balance
- false compromise
- middle ground
- splitting the difference
- argumentum ad temperantiam
There is a choice to make between doing X or doing Y. Therefore, the answer is somewhere between X and Y.
The problem is that it's possible that either X or Y is entirely true, meaning that only partially doing the right thing makes little sense. This argument is generally built around the idea that the middle point between two extremes is equal parts of each side and therefore equally acceptable to both sides; but as the saying goes, half a kitten is not half as cute, it's a bloody mess.
“”By creating a sense that discourse is all one extreme against the other or one cynic against another, CNN has added to the corrosive cynicism that permeates politics...by having every discussion of climate change include one scientist who says it is real and manmade against another who denies it, CNN has contributed to an atmosphere where “facts” are not real—you can find an expert anywhere to deny them.
The application of the fallacy leads to 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.
- Thirdly, the currency of experts is over-inflated, and one could argued that the bubble has popped. When CNN is presenting Doctor Joe Bloggs as a climate change "expert" against someone with a Princeton degree who has dedicated their life to the topic, the public now needs an expert to examine credentials before they can examine evidence given by experts. Conversely, the BBC instructed their reporters to stop giving credence to climate deniers in 2014.
- In practical design and planning, it can lead to the creation of awkward compromise positions that lack the efficiency of either alternative while trying to keep everybody happy. An extreme example would be for a nation which couldn't decide whether to drive on the left or right of the road to say that everybody should drive in the middle. In milder forms it can lead to requirement creep or feature creep which result in bloat, delay, and overcomplication, and an end result that suits nobody. Political policies such as "don't ask, don't tell" and Obamacare's compromise between public and private healthcare have been accused of this.
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 to minority viewpoints or fringe theories in its articles. RationalWiki, on the other hand, avoids the balance fallacy by calling fringe theories bullshit from start to finish despite the fact that some of the theories of the greatest scientists of all time were considered "fringe" theories in their time. But of course fringe theories are so absurd they must be bullshit, right? We will just ignore the fact that we are appealing to the stone here. [note 1]
- The Missouri compromise, which tried to find a "middle ground" between abolitionists and pro-slavery forces. Of course, the abolitionists were entirely correct to want to outlaw slavery completely but this was seen as too extreme for many at the time.
- "Some say austerity in a depressed economy is bad. Others say austerity in a depressed economy is good. Therefore, some austerity in a depressed economy is the correct answer." This one's fairly common in America, where there is no single left-wing party (apart from the democrats and the greens) to promote the idea of spending more in a depressed economy, so the debate is between centrists and right-wingers.
- "One of my friends wants me to use a pharmacists prescription to treat my illness, another one of my friends wants me to use holistic medicine. Therefore I'll take only half of my prescription and use half of the holistic's recommendations."
- "Joe thinks the Packers will win the game. Frank thinks the Eagles will win. That means the game will probably end in a tie."
- "Gay people want the right to marry. Fundamentalists don't want gay people to marry. Therefore we should just give gay people civil unions and be on our merry way."[note 2] (Or on a similar note: "Gay people want the right to serve in the military. Conservatives don't want gay people in the military. Therefore, let's allow gay people to serve in the military as long as they stay in the closet.")
- Conservatives say "global warming isn't real." Liberals believe in man-made climate change. Therefore, climate change is real, but we're not the ones causing it.
- Trans people want to be recognized by their preferred name and pronouns. But conservatives disrespect both, since chromosomes cannot be changed. Therefore, we should respect trans people's new names, but not their pronouns.[note 3]
- It's largely accepted that the only reason most mainstream papers carry Mallard Fillmore (apt title) is to act as a counter-weight to keep conservatives happy, since they were complaining when the only political cartoon in most papers was Doonesbury.
- Men's Rights activists are totally for "equality" of the sexes, though concessions have to be made for the biological and evolutionary differences in men and women. This is a reasoned argument. Alas it sets off alarm bells for anyone who has dealt with MRAs for any length of time, as their arguments quickly snowball into apologia for rape and discrimination.
- In a supposed effort to promote "balance", C-SPAN attempted to broadcast a 2004 speech by Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt adjacent to a speech by Holocaust denier David Irving, notorious for his earlier failed lawsuit against Lipstadt. After much public outrage, Lipstadt banned the media from her event, and ultimately C-SPAN canceled both broadcasts.[note 4]
In general, politics is a process of compromise between interest groups making extreme demands; for example, the gun control debate does have people on one side who want to ban kitchen knives and people on the other who think it should be lawful for civilians to own nuclear weapons. Indeed, in politics the term "extremist" has a connotation of unreasonableness attached to it. However, it is still true that extremists are not wrong simply because they are extreme; in Nazi Germany, Hitler wanted to kill all the Jews, while the Jews didn't want him to kill any of them. Most would not argue the logically correct answer was to kill half the Jews.
It may sound hyperbolic, but remember that the alt-right has become a legitimate political movement. Donald Trump can openly call for internment camps, accuse the President of being a foreign agent, and refuse to release his tax returns (Romney tried this stunt and got battered for his evasion), and the press is forced to entertain his point of view. America hasn't changed that much in four years, but the media landscape has. Cable networks like CNN are desperate. Their biggest share of viewers are older and whiter than the general public, and that skews Republican. They simply cannot afford to appear biased (read: liberal) in calling a major Republican figure a liar. So, they create a false equivalency to hedge.
Even after the national tragedies at Charlottesville and Parkland Elementary School (especially in the case of the former, which was a dispute between right and left-wing protesters yet only the right actually killed anyone) where people were directly murdered by white supremacists, when preventative measures were called for against extremist rhetoric and stricter laws to keep assault rifles out of the hands of people with known violent histories, false equivalence was made between white nationalists on the right and Antifa on the left. To the point that advocates state we haven't reached a practical answer that suits everyone and there needs to be a calm and balanced discussion by sane people without any political agenda or you'll risk of oppressing innocent groups of people, despite that hatred is directly written into Nazi ideology so even the most nonviolent racist will still go to the ends of the earth to oppress people and create a white ethnostate.
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."
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.
“”All such arguments boil down to saying that half a loaf is the same as no bread.
|—George Orwell on Broderism sixty years before Broderism.|
In political journalism, a similar phenomenon 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,[note 5] so each party is equally crazy.
On Fark, similar arguments are referred to as "BSABSVR," short for "Both Sides Are Bad, So Vote Republican."
There is an old joke in journalism: "As Mr. Hitler would say...." The joke is that you can't do even a story about how horrible the Holocaust is without including Hitler's viewpoint, in the name of "balance".
- False dilemma
- Very Serious People
- Pommer's Law
- Teach the controversy
- Fox News
- Two wrongs don't make a right
- Penultimate paragraph syndrome
- See the Wikipedia article on Middle ground.
- "Semicontrolled Demolition"
- Giving "equal time" to people who believe the sun is hot and cold
- 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. (So much for the liberal media.)
- False Compromise, The Middle Ground Fallacies, Bruce Thompson
- Understanding Science - Beware of false balance (Berkeley)Bruce Thompson
- Middle ground, Nizkor Project
- Your logical fallacy is middle ground, YLFI
- The Horrible Bosses 2 fallacy
- 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.
- This argument in particular not only contains a fallacy but flawed premises as well. The extreme pro-gay position would be to allow only gay couples to marry. Thus, marriage equality is the "moderate" position. Of course, this is still a fallacy, using that argument to support equal rights is flawed as well.
- A position held by Ben Shapiro, among others.
- It's worth noting that C-SPAN, unlike other networks, still has a mandate to broadcast politically balanced programming, but this only applies to alternative opinions, not alternative facts.
- 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.
- Homeopathy and quacks versus science, Respectful Insolence
- Ornstein, Norm, "The 8 Causes of Trumpism", 1.4.16.
- The Awkward Clinton-Era Debate Over 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell', The Atlantic, Oct 2014
- See the Wikipedia article on Wikipedia Policy: Undue weight.
- See the Wikipedia article on Wikipedia Policy: Fringe theories.
- So says Mr. Krugman
- lays waste to Global Warming deniers (YouTube). Maher: "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."
- Cynthia McKinney (D-GA) compares 9/11 Truthers with Civil Rights Activists at Benefit, InfoWars
- What the hell, Mike Gravel (D-AK)?, 911TruthNews