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Fallacy of being "Balanced"

By Paul So ~

I think most of you are familiar with this fallacy of “teaching the controversy” that is so ubiquitous in the post-Dove Trial when most Americans think that it is more “balanced” and “fair” to teach two different theories of evolution and intelligent design. This is something that you will also find in Global Warming in which the skeptics and believers are perceived to have equally plausible positions that are disputed. I want to point out that these two instances exemplify why I call the fallacy of pseudo-balance views. It’s a term that I personally coined and I will explain why I coined it this way. To avoid misunderstanding, I am not against the idea of being balanced but I am against the idea of calling for a balanced approach when the approach is unwarranted. To explain why it’s unwarranted I will clarify two basic problems this approach can have if it is potentially abused.
ImpartialityImpartiality (Photo credit: squishband)
First, the approach of being balanced becomes pseudo-balance when it assumes that there is a legitimate controversy. Most Americans misunderstand what the term “controversy” means. Controversy can have variety of meaning, but in the context of academic disciplines of philosophy, natural science, social science, and other disciplines it means that there is a dividing view on certain subject that has not been resolved with a solution or answer. For example, String Theory is controversial since while it is a very theoretically simple and coherent theory that solved many theoretical problems in physics it lacks empirical evidences because it is extremely difficult to test it. You have many theoretical physicists who believe in it but you also have substantial number of scientific critics who claim that it lacks evidence. In a sense, String Theory is controversial because you have a dividing view that is equally plausible. You cannot make this same analogy with evolutionary biology because there is no division among scientists on whether the contemporary theory of evolution is true: there is plenty of evidence that supports the theory from variety of scientific fields that relates to biology. The problem here is that when the balanced approach makes an unwarranted assumption that there is a substantial controversy when in fact there are very little reasons to support it. Another good example of a scientific controversy is the experiment that shows that neutrinos might be faster than the speed of light. This is controversial because on one hand you have a verified result that shows that Einstein is wrong but on the other hand you have many past experiments that supported Einstein’s view that light is the fastest thing in the universe. Of course, many scientists think that the experiment must be replicated again with more enhanced and improve instruments that exclude certain altering possibilities.

Second, the approach assumes that being “balanced” is the same thing as being impartial. While being impartial and being balanced are not mutually exclusive they are still different from each other. Being balanced is to try to give the benefit of the doubt to both opposing side of the issue as if they have equal footing since there is no other determining factor that helps one to reasonably discriminate which side is right (or well supported). Being impartial is trying to examine the soundness and validity of the claims and arguments people make by going through the evidence and scrutinizing the line of reasoning. Another fundamental difference between being balanced and being impartial is that an impartial person will eventually have to choose a side whenever overwhelming evidence and good arguments lean towards that side. A person who is balanced assumes that there is no sufficient available evidence to reasonably discriminate which side is likely to be right. It is possible to approach any subject with a balanced and impartial approach but eventually choose a side. When the side is chosen due to examining the evidence and soundness of the arguments you still sustain your impartiality, but balance in this case only has the instrumental role in making an informed decision in the end.

It is worth mentioning that being balanced is a virtue when it is done in the right situation. It is good to have a balanced view in difficult issues when it is not entirely clear which side is right, but it is uninformed and nonsensical to have a balanced view when it is very clear which side wins. It’s like suggesting that a football fan must be balanced even when the Steelers win against, let’s say, the Patriots in the Super Bowl. It is certainly possible to prefer a side while remaining balanced, but when the determining factors comes into the discourse to determine which side wins there no longer is room for balance; to suggest otherwise amounts to intellectual dishonesty.

It is being impartial that is very important here because all it requires you to do is to think critically by examining the evidence and soundness of arguments which eventually will lead you to make an informed decision on what is probably true. That doesn’t make you close-minded and unreasonably biased. Being close-minded is to refuse to examine the arguments since you assume that it must be correct (or that it must be wrong so why bother). Being unreasonably biased is to make an unwarranted assumption that a certain position is right when you have not examined that position. To think critically on both sides of the issue is also good, but there will be cases when you will realize that sometimes some sides are just so obviously right (or more well supported) that you just cannot pretend to think that both sides have equal footing.

So whenever you meet people who claim that because they endorse the “controversy” they must somehow be balanced, try showing them that that’s only the case if there really is a controversy as understood in science. The only reason why it is considered to be a “controversy” is because there is a disagreement but just because there is a disagreement it does not follow that having a balanced approach must apply. If the disagreements are such that one cannot decide which one is most likely right, then it does apply but in this case there is so much determining factors that demonstrates that evolution is true. So instead of teaching the “controversy” we ought to dispel it as a myth.

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