Fifty-Fifty Balance No Matter The Issue = Indefensible

When I'm speaking about how to fix the politics-of-science problem, I often target the media for special criticism. I point out that if journalists weren't so addicted to the norm of fify-fifty "balance," they wouldn't be so vulnerable to the machinations of science abusers who attempt to create phony "debates" over topics like evolution or global warming.

But when asked what to do about this problem, I don't throw up my hands in despair. Quite the contrary: I think that, at least to a large extent, journalists are amenable to reason. Sure, we need better science education in journalism school. But we also need to take the argument straight to journalists: There's no justification for fifty-fifty balance in coverage irrespective of the issue being covered. Rather, in each and every story, journalists have to make a judgment about how credible their sources are. The obvious reductio ad absurdum is Holocaust deniers: Should their perspective be provided, for "balance," any time someone writes about the Holocaust? Of course not.

Faced with this argument directly, I doubt any journalist would really reject it. The good news, then, is that the argument is being made more and more prominently. To give just one example: I saw Good Night, and Good Luck last night, and the Edward R. Murrow character makes this very point about the limits of "balance," quite explicitly. It was extremely heartening to see such a position being adopted in a popular movie. And as more and more media critics make this point, I am optimistic that it will eventually stick.

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Interesting point. It seems almost obvious that point/counter-point is the fair, "balanced" way to report but your Holocaust example shows the hole in that logic. When active disinformation enters into the equation, balance goes out the window.

Reminds me of Carl Sagan's quote about being open-minded but not so much that your brain falls out.

The hard part is getting journalists to recognize the reputable sources and the disreputable sources. Inability to distinguish which is which may be responsible for some of the "balance" we are seeing now. There needs to be an incentive to do excellent work. I'd like to see awards given for superior science journalism--not hidden away in a AAAS meeting, but in some popular open forum. Heck, we can watch music/tv/movie award shows 2 or 3 nights a week these days.

By Mark Duigon (not verified) on 17 Feb 2006 #permalink

When I refer people to RWOS, that's one of the strongest ideas I point to.

But we scientists encourage such behavior by acting just as scientists should, namely being skeptical and using language that qualifies our conclusions. We know that kind of universal skepticism makes a consensus all the stronger once it emerges -- not impregnable but solid and believable. But it also allows people who don't want to accept that consensus to emphasize the few remaining uncertainties.

That's why some people still dispute the basic data on global warming, not just our interpretation of it. They are waiting for a "smoking gun" in that argument and don't realize that the weapon is pointed at their heads.

I'm somewhat at a loss for how this extends to moral issuesânot your area of expertise, I know, but still very relevant. Clearly we're not going to give equal airtime to any crazy pro-genocide groups, but what do we do about issues like gay marriage or abortion where a reporter may feel there is a clear moral truth but the American people as a whole do not? It's hard to label one source as more credible than another for moral issues. Are reporters "covering the controversy" and should therefore represent both sides? It seems hard to cover any controversy without making an implicit statement about what values are correct or making a controversy seem legitimate when there should be none. What are the guidelines here?

By ThePolynomial (not verified) on 17 Feb 2006 #permalink

That's why some people still dispute the basic data on global warming, not just our interpretation of it. They are waiting for a "smoking gun" in that argument and don't realize that the weapon is pointed at their heads.

Part of the problem is that the gun is pointed at some heads more than others. For instance, the gun isn't pointed at the heads of the executives at Exxon/Mobil. Apparently they've felt perfectly comfortable retaining public relations experts to plant a steady stream of FUD in the public mind. (Lazy reporters can use this kind of readily-available material to simply fill in the blanks and create their "balanced" stories.)

I agree with what Chris has said previously, that scientists really have had a hard time figuring out how to counteract the PR campaigns ...

By Jon Winsor (not verified) on 17 Feb 2006 #permalink

Chris -

I'm still struggling to understand the effect of "false balance" reporting on the public's understanding of climate change. To the extent it exists, of course it's a problem. But polling data suggests the public in the United States overwhelmingly accepts the scientific consensus. As a journalist, of course I'd like to think that what I write has a tremendous effect on public understanding and opinions. But the the polling data suggest two hypotheses (not necessarily mutually exclusive): that there really isn't a broad false balance problem on climate change (anecdotes nothwithstanding), or else that what we journalists write really doesn't have much of an effect. My experience suggests it's a whole lot of both.

I will reserve my comments for those journalists who are honestly interested in informing the public. There are clearly some who exploit "scientific uncertainty" for their own purposes, but I happen to believe that they are in the minority (though a very vocal, well-funded and politically influential minority it sometimes is!)

I believe there are two possibilities for why HONEST journalists take the "balanced" approach:

1) It is the path of least resistance to "present both sides and simply let the viewer (or listener) decide for him/herself".

Let's face it, it IS MUCH easier (and much less controversial) to just "balance" things (one interview from a "think tank" on the left balanced with one from a think tank on the right, one global warming believer with one contrarian) than it is to attempt to sort out all the conflicting "facts" and determine what is actually "true".

Even harder still (after one has sorted it out in ones's own mind as a journalist) is to then put together a logical argument that takes into account all these facts. In other words, behaving like a scientist ain't easy -- particularly when one was not trained as a scientist!

Which brings me to the next possibility for why journalists might take the "balanced approach":

2) Some journalists simply do not understand how science works. Since many issues involving humans (eg ethical issues) ARE subjective, some journalists seem to have concluded that it is probably a safe bet to assume that ALL issues probably are.

When it comes to science, too few journalists actually recognize that there exist OBJECTIVE criteria for judging what is true in the scientifc sense (or more accurately, what is FALSE, since science is actually the game of falisfication: the theory that is left standing is assumed [for today, at least] to be "true"). Approaching things scientifically is difficult (if not impossible) if one does not understand how science works.

By laurence jewett (not verified) on 17 Feb 2006 #permalink

Part of the problem is that the gun is pointed at some heads more than others. For instance, the gun isn't pointed at the heads of the executives at Exxon/Mobil.

They live on this planet, and they won't be able to shield themselves from the results of reaching a tipping point. The gun is pointed at all of us.

If Bangladesh is devastated or the Gulf Stram shuts down -- real possibilities though still on the extreme end of tipping point predictions -- the possible geopolitical effects are frightening.

Yes, that's extreme, but I don't think The Coming Storm by Bob Reiss and other more recent books reviewed at are far off the mark.

Part of the problem lies in the nature of the topic. Some, like the evolution/ID-creationism debate, are black and white. Evolution is true and IDC is false. The latter should get no ink as a scientific alternative. A good reporter, however, would examine the social/cultural force driving the supporters of ID to do what they do: their religious beliefs and narrow world view. (The professional promoters of ID, like the DI, given their dishonesty should get no ink.) Other issues, like abortion, however, are not a question of scientific accuracy (which is not to deny the frequent false facts often cited by abortion opponents). Science simply cannot elucidate the right choice here. In fact one finds many shades of gray between the black and white poles of no abortion ever to abortion on demand. Global warming is a little bit of both. The scientfic fact of it seems rock solid with the only debatable points being at what speed and what might the specific consequences be. Deniers should be denied ink. However, the policy issues are very much open to debate since they involve economics, an as yet ill-defined forecast, what steps are best to ameliorate the consequences, and can we and should we stop and reverse it. The answer the latter depending very much on whether we know what we're doing. The bad part is that deniers currently hold the reins of power to effect changes, so the necessary debate isn't even being joined. At times I feel that global warming is like watching the world burn while Bush, our Nero, fiddles away entertaining the nation's plutocrats.

Slightly OT, but Steve Gilliard at the News Blog(by way of Pharyngula)posted on a reporter, Richard Cohen, at WaPo, writing an opinion piece about high school students not needing algebra to learn how to think logically, since they'll never use it again in real life.

With this kind of attitude, it's no wonder journalists can't write intelligently on scientific topics. I'm just a salesperson for a wholesaler, and I use algebra and statistics often to figure out what my customers need, and apparently many of the commenters on Steve's post also use mathematics as part of varied jobs.

It's not just about some phony kind of balance, but about the incredible laziness to be found in the current brand of journalism-- like not knowing what it takes to make it at many kinds of jobs in the modern world for one.

The other day I ran across, a site maintained by the Kaiser Family Foundation to provide journalists with solid resources about healthcare topics. It occurred to me that we need a comparable site called "sciencereporting" that journalists could use to get a handle on how to report science stories.

What foundation or organization would be a good candidate to host such a site? Anyone want to take a stab at outlining the contents of such a site or nominating resources to highlight?

Response to The Polynomial--
Moral issues have to be treated differently. At least when there is a real moral divide in society, such as over abortion for example, I think journalists should employ "balance." Of course, that doesn't mean in shooting stories they need to provide the "pro-murder" point of view....but you see what I mean.

As Keanus points out, there's also a better argument for "balance" when it comes to covering policy implications of scientific findings.

John: I don't know what polling data you speak of, but the false balance problem in coverage has been studied quantitatively in academic journals, such as by Boykoff and Boykoff. I have little doubt it exists.

Thanks to the rest of you for your comments....

As the historian Thomas Haskell stated in his well-known article "Objectivity is Not Neutrality":

"The powerful argument is the highest fruit of the kind of thinking I would call objective, and in it neutrality plays no part. Authentic objectivity has simply nothing to do with the television newscaster's mechanical gesture of allocating the same number of seconds to both sides of a question, or editorially splitting the difference between them, irrespective of their perceived merits" (Haskell, History and Theory, 29 (no. 2), 1990, 129-157).

I just read your comment about Popper on raypierre's magnifico piece. May I suggest a mandatory discussion of Popper in David Stove's, Four Modern Irrationalists. If you don't know Stove yet, you are in for a treat.

By gerald spezio (not verified) on 19 Feb 2006 #permalink