Friday, April 4, 2014

Not all ideas are created equal: The Balance Fallacy

The opposite of the false dichotomy, the balance fallacy occurs when someone asserts that the extremes are always wrong and the middle ground, therefore, must be right. It also occurs when we give equal weight and credence to both sides of an argument regardless of the evidence supporting the sides. This fallacy is not the same thing as pointing out flaws in both sides of an argument while remaining, or appearing to remain, undecided. It is a very “Western” fallacy as we are often accustomed to resolving problems through compromise in order to be “fair” and “balanced.” However, in trying to appear balanced, we may be ignoring the fact that one side may actually be right. Presenting information this way may also result in skewing public opinion; they may think that just because they have been presented with both sides equally that they are then equally probable or equally acceptable. (Other names include the false balance, argument to moderation, argumentum ad temperatium, golden mean fallacy, false compromise, and the gray fallacy.)

How it applies: The “Teach the Controversy” Campaign pushed by the Discovery Institute is a very clear example of this fallacy. They argue that scientific classrooms should give equal weight to evolution and intelligent design (ID) even though ID is a religious view and is overwhelmingly discredited by science.

Examples:

  • “Some would say that hydrogen cyanide is a delicious and necessary part of the human diet, but others claim it is a toxic and dangerous substance. The truth must therefore be somewhere in between.”
  • “The fact that one is confronted with an individual who strongly argues that slavery is wrong and another who argues equally strongly that slavery is perfectly legitimate in no way suggests that the truth must be somewhere in the middle.”
  • Some people consider this a problem with modern journalism: to appear "objective", many reporters and commentators will interview both sides of an issue and avoid as much as possible indicating that one side is demonstrably in error. (Okrent's Law: The quest for balance creates imbalance because sometimes things are true.)
  • The idea that teachers should deal with school bullies by staying neutral is an example. Many schools treat bullying as though it were a mutual conflict where both students are equally wrong, rather than one student abusing another. Of course, without evidence, even if it seems clear one kid most likely started it, teachers are usually expected not to be biased towards either party, especially once parents get involved.
  • During the Constitutional Convention, two of the compromises were essentially this. First was the Great Compromise, which took the Virginia Plan (allocate votes based on population) and the New Jersey Plan (each state gets the same number of votes) and put them together. No one really thought that was a good idea, but since the issue had become a deadlock, they accepted it and today it is seen as a perfectly reasonable way of doing things. The second compromise, the Three-Fifths Compromise (slaves count as three-fifths of a person), was a more literal application of this trope and is often considered the founder's greatest failure. It has since been redacted by the Thirteenth Amendment.