Friday, September 25, 2015

Today's Logical Fallacy is... Balance Fallacy!

(False Balance, Argument to Moderation, Argumentum ad Temperantium, Golden Mean Fallacy, False compromise, Gray fallacy)

The opposite of the false dichotomy, this fallacy occurs when someone asserts that the extremes are always wrong and the middle ground is always right or when we give equal weight and credence to both sides of an argument regardless of the evidence supporting the sides for the sake of being "fair." This isn’t to say that the middle ground is always wrong; sometimes it may be the best option. It's a fallacy when we assume that the middle ground must be right because it is between two extremes. This fallacy does not occur when pointing out flaws in both sides of an argument while remaining, or appearing to remain, undecided.

This is a very “Western” fallacy as we are often accustomed to resolving problems through compromise in order to be “fair” and “balanced.” We take great care to make sure that all voices and opinions are heard; we avoid offending others and try to appear sensible. However, in trying to appear balanced, we may be ignoring the fact that one side may actually be right.

There are many potential consequences to this fallacy. One is that we start to think that the truth is always in the middle ground, and we may find ourselves frequently wrong if one side is, in fact, right. Another is that we may be skewing public opinion inappropriately; many think that just because they were presented with both sides equally that they are both equally probable or equally acceptable. It may also lead to a solution that has compromised so much that it doesn’t actually solve the problem.

One of the better ways to avoid this fallacy is to adhere to objective criteria – evidence, formal logic, and scholarly or scientific consensus. We should avoiding giving undue weight to minority viewpoints or fringe theories. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t take minority viewpoints into consideration; we should just make sure that we understand that they are the minority.


“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.”

“A 100 ft canyon lies in front of Jack and Jill. Jack wants to build a 100 ft bridge to cross the canyon, but Jill doesn't want to cross at all. A compromise between the two would be a 50 ft bridge, which would only please Jill.”

“Bob says we should buy a computer. Sue says we shouldn't. Therefore, the best solution is to compromise and buy half a computer.”

“Should array indices start at 0 or 1? My compromise of 0.5 was rejected without, I thought, proper consideration.” — Stan Kelly-Bootle

“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.”

Bob wants to exterminate all the termites in the house. Alice doesn't want to exterminate them at all. Therefore, the correct course of action is to kill exactly half of the termites.

“Teach the controversy” is a campaign Discovery Institute giving equal weight to evolution and intelligent design even though ID is a religious view and is overwhelmingly discredited by science.

Media attention to anti-vaccine arguments to “balance” the views even though the vast majority of medical professionals agree that vaccines do not cause autism. The media will, of course, highlight things that are “unusual” in order to draw viewers.

Siding with neither slavery nor integration, “separate but equal” was a popular “middle-ground.”

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.)

This can be exploited for marketing purposes with what is known as Goldilocks pricing. Suppose you have two products, Product A is the basic version which gives just the essentials for a low price, and Product B has all the bells and whistles but is more expensive. Many people will see this and decide that A does all they need, and so there is no point in paying extra for B. On the other hand, bring out Product C which is slightly better than Product B but with another price hike, and suddenly B becomes much more tempting, as it offers most of what you get from C but at a lower price. The classic example of this is Economy, Business, and First Class seating on airlines.

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.

Ronald Reagan's "evil empire" speech argued that anyone who saw the United States and Soviet Union as moral equals was using this fallacy: "I urge you to beware the temptation of pride, the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil." Notably, when re-election time came along, his tone became much more conciliatory, suggesting that swing voters at least, weren't quite so certain of the dichotomy.

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