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The problem of false balance when reporting on science

The Conversation

Peter Ellerton, The University of Queensland

How do you know the people billed as science experts that you see, hear and read about in the media are really all that credible? Or have they been included just to create a perception of balance in the coverage of an issue?

It’s a problem for any media and something the BBC’s Trust is trying to address in its latest report on science impartiality in programming.

As part of ongoing training, staff, particularly in non-news programs, were told that impartiality is not just about including a wide range of views on an issue, as this can lead to a “false balance”. This is the process of providing a platform for people whose views do not accord with established or dominant positions simply for the sake of seeming “balanced”.

The BBC has been criticised before for “false balance” and there are reports now that certain climate change sceptics are banned from BBC News, although this is denied by the BBC.

It’s understandable that such false balance could grow from a desire to seem impartial, and particularly so since public broadcasters such as the BBC and the ABC in Australia are sensitive to claims of imbalance or bias.

Couple this with the need to negotiate the difficult ground of expert opinion, authentic balance and audience expectation, not to mention the always delicate tension between the imperatives of news and entertainment, and it hardly seems surprising that mistakes are made. An investigation this year found the ABC breached its own impartiality standards in its Catalyst program last year on statins and heart disease.

Finding the right balance

How then can journalists decide the best way to present a scientific issue to ensure accurate representation of the views of the community of experts? Indeed, how can any of us determine if what we are seeing in the media is balanced or a misrepresentation of expert opinion?

Hard to find the right balance.
Flickr/Paxson Woelber , CC BY

As I have written elsewhere, it is important to not confuse the right to be heard with an imagined right to be taken seriously. If an idea fails to survive in the community of experts, its public profile should diminish in proportion to its failure to generate consensus within that community.

A common reply to this is that science isn’t about consensus, it’s about the truth. This is so, but to use a consensus as evidence of error is fallacious reasoning.

While it’s true that some presently accepted notions have in the past been peripheral, the idea that simply being against the majority view equates to holding your intellectual ground in the best tradition of the enlightenment is ludicrous.

If all views are equal, then all views are worthless.

Were I to propose an idea free of testing or argument, I could not reasonably expect my idea to be as credible as those subject to rigorous experimentation and collaborative review. If such equality did exist then progress would be impossible, since progress is marked by the testing and rejection of ideas.

Defining an expert

In the case of science, this testing is the process of experimentation, data analysis and peer review. So if someone – scientist or otherwise – has not worked and published in an area, then they are not an expert in that area.

The first imperative for a journalist covering any story is to determine exactly in what field the issue best sits and then to seek advice from people who work and publish in that field.

Knowing how the issue fits into the broader picture of scientific investigation is very useful in determining this. It is one of the reasons that good science journalism follows from having journalists with some training in science.

Such a selection process, performed transparently, is an excellent defence against charges of bias.

Avoiding false balance

False balance can also be created by assuming that a person from outside the field (a non-expert) will somehow have a perspective that will shed light on an issue, that the real expert is too “caught up in the details” to be objective.

But suggesting that an expert is naive usually indicates an attempt at discrediting rather than truth seeking. Credibility is more about process than authority, and to be a recognised expert is to work within the process of science.

Also, if a piece of science is being criticised, we should ask if the criticism itself has been published. It’s not enough that someone with apparent authority casts doubt as this is simply an appeal to authority – an appeal that critics of mainstream science themselves use as a warrant to reject consensus.

A second journalistic imperative would be to recognise that not all issues are binary.

Coins may have two sides but not so every science issue.
Flickr/monkeyc net, CC BY-NC-SA

The metaphor that a coin has two sides is a powerful one, and the temptation to look at both sides of an issue is naturally strong. But the metaphor also assumes an equal weighting, and that both sides present the same space for discussion.

Proof and evidence

When an issue is genuinely controversial, the burden of proof is shared between opposing views. When a view is not mainstream, say that scientists are engaged in a conspiracy to defraud the public, the burden of proof sits with those promoting that view.

In such cases, as Christopher Hitchens succinctly put it:

What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.

Attempting to dishonestly shift the burden of proof is a common device in the push to have young earth creationism taught in science classrooms.

The idea of “teaching both sides” or that students should be allowed to make up their own minds seems again like a recourse to the most basic ideas of a liberal education, but is in reality an attempt to bypass expert consensus, to offload the burden of proof rather than own it.

The fact is, that for issues such as creationism, vaccination and that climate change is occurring and is a function of human activity, it’s not about journalists suppressing views, it’s about quality control of information.

Stay with the issue

A classic means of muddying the waters is to employ straw man arguments, in which the point at issue is changed to one more easily defended or better suited to a particular interest. Politicians are adept at doing this, dodging hard questions with statements like “the real issue is” or “what’s important to people is”.

An expert versus who?

Deniers of climate science often change the issue from global warming to whether or not consensus is grounds for acceptance (it alone is not, of course), or focus on whether a particular person is credible rather than discuss the literature at large.

The anti-vaccine lobby talks about “choice” rather than efficacy of health care.
Young earth creationists talk about the right to express all views rather than engage with the science. Politicians talk about anything except the question they were asked.

The third imperative, therefore, is to be very clear as to what the article or interview is about and stick to that topic. Moving off topic negates the presence of the experts (the desired effect) and gives unsubstantiated claims prominence.

The impartiality checklist

The best method of dealing with cranks, conspiracy theorists, ideologues and those with a vested interest in a particular outcome is the best method for science reporting in general:

  • insist on expertise
  • recognise where the burden of proof sits
  • stay focused on the point at issue.

If the media sticks to these three simple rules when covering science issues, impartiality and balance can be justifiably asserted.

Correction: This article was amended on July 17, 2014 to include a report of the BBC’s denial that a climate change sceptic was banned from the public broadcaster.

The ConversationPeter Ellerton, Lecturer in Critical Thinking, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.


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Argument to moderation

Argument to moderation (Latin: argumentum ad temperantiam) is an informal fallacy which asserts that the truth can be found as a compromise between two opposite positions.  It is also known as the argument from middle ground, false compromise, grey fallacy and the golden mean fallacy.  It is effectively an inverse false dilemma, discarding both of two opposites in favour of a middle position. It is related to, but different from the false balance fallacy.

An individual demonstrating this fallacy implies that the positions being considered represent extremes of a continuum of opinions, that such extremes are always wrong, and the middle ground is always correct.  This is not necessarily the case.

The form of the fallacy goes like this:

Premise: There is a choice to make between doing X or doing Y.

Conclusion: Therefore, the answer is somewhere between X and Y.

This argument is invalid because the conclusion does not logically follow from the premise.  Sometimes only X or Y is right or true, with no middle ground possible.

To give an example of this fallacy:

‘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.’[1]

Another example is:

’You say the sky is blue, while I say the sky is red. Therefore, the best solution is to compromise and agree that the sky is purple.’

This fallacy is sometimes used in rhetorical debates to undermine an opponent’s position.  All one must do is present yet another, radically opposed position, and the middle-ground compromise will be forced closer to that position.  In pragmatic politics, this is part of the basis behind the Overton window theory.

In US politics this fallacy is known as ‘High Broderism’ after David Broder, a columnist and reporter for the Washington Post who insisted, against all reason, that the best policy was always the middle ground between the Republicans and the Democrats.

Related to this fallacy is design by committee, which is a disparaging term used to describe a project that has many designers involved but no unifying plan or vision, often resulting in a negotiated compromise; as illustrated by the aphorism ‘A camel is a horse designed by a committee’. The point is that a negotiated compromise is not necessarily true, right or even the optimal outcome. This does not mean that a negotiated compromise may not be appropriate in some cases.


[1] Susan T. Gardner (2009).Thinking Your Way to Freedom: A Guide to Owning Your Own Practical Reasoning. Temple University Press.

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Dara O’Briain vs homeopathy

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No, you’re not entitled to your opinion

The Conversation

By Patrick Stokes, Deakin University

Every year, I try to do at least two things with my students at least once. First, I make a point of addressing them as “philosophers” – a bit cheesy, but hopefully it encourages active learning.

Secondly, I say something like this: “I’m sure you’ve heard the expression ‘everyone is entitled to their opinion.’ Perhaps you’ve even said it yourself, maybe to head off an argument or bring one to a close. Well, as soon as you walk into this room, it’s no longer true. You are not entitled to your opinion. You are only entitled to what you can argue for.”

A bit harsh? Perhaps, but philosophy teachers owe it to our students to teach them how to construct and defend an argument – and to recognize when a belief has become indefensible.

The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” – and by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful. And this attitude feeds, I suggest, into the false equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse.

Firstly, what’s an opinion?

Plato distinguished between opinion or common belief (doxa) and certain knowledge, and that’s still a workable distinction today: unlike “1+1=2” or “there are no square circles,” an opinion has a degree of subjectivity and uncertainty to it. But “opinion” ranges from tastes or preferences, through views about questions that concern most people such as prudence or politics, to views grounded in technical expertise, such as legal or scientific opinions.

You can’t really argue about the first kind of opinion. I’d be silly to insist that you’re wrong to think strawberry ice cream is better than chocolate. The problem is that sometimes we implicitly seem to take opinions of the second and even the third sort to be unarguable in the way questions of taste are. Perhaps that’s one reason (no doubt there are others) why enthusiastic amateurs think they’re entitled to disagree with climate scientists and immunologists and have their views “respected.”

Meryl Dorey is the leader of the Australian Vaccination Network, which despite the name is vehemently anti-vaccine. Ms. Dorey has no medical qualifications, but argues that if Bob Brown is allowed to comment on nuclear power despite not being a scientist, she should be allowed to comment on vaccines. But no-one assumes Dr. Brown is an authority on the physics of nuclear fission; his job is to comment on the policy responses to the science, not the science itself.

So what does it mean to be “entitled” to an opinion?

If “Everyone’s entitled to their opinion” just means no-one has the right to stop people thinking and saying whatever they want, then the statement is true, but fairly trivial. No one can stop you saying that vaccines cause autism, no matter how many times that claim has been disproven.

But if ‘entitled to an opinion’ means ‘entitled to have your views treated as serious candidates for the truth’ then it’s pretty clearly false. And this too is a distinction that tends to get blurred.

On Monday, the ABC’s Mediawatch program took WIN-TV Wollongong to task for running a story on a measles outbreak which included comment from – you guessed it – Meryl Dorey. In a response to a viewer complaint, WIN said that the story was “accurate, fair and balanced and presented the views of the medical practitioners and of the choice groups.” But this implies an equal right to be heard on a matter in which only one of the two parties has the relevant expertise. Again, if this was about policy responses to science, this would be reasonable. But the so-called “debate” here is about the science itself, and the “choice groups” simply don’t have a claim on air time if that’s where the disagreement is supposed to lie.[1]

Mediawatch host Jonathan Holmes was considerably more blunt: “there’s evidence, and there’s bulldust,” and it’s no part of a reporter’s job to give bulldust equal time with serious expertise.

The response from anti-vaccination voices was predictable. On the Mediawatch site, Ms. Dorey accused the ABC of “openly calling for censorship of a scientific debate.” This response confuses not having your views taken seriously with not being allowed to hold or express those views at all – or to borrow a phrase from Andrew Brown, it “confuses losing an argument with losing the right to argue.” Again, two senses of “entitlement” to an opinion are being conflated here.

So next time you hear someone declare they’re entitled to their opinion, ask them why they think that. Chances are, if nothing else, you’ll end up having a more enjoyable conversation that way.

Read more from Patrick Stokes: The ethics of bravery

The ConversationPatrick Stokes does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

Reblogger’s note: 

[1] This is a fallacy known as false balance.


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False balance

by Tim Harding

False balance, is a form of deliberate or unintended media bias, in which opposing viewpoints are presented as being more balanced than the evidence warrants.  The media gives weight to evidence and opinions out of proportion to the supporting evidence for each side, and/or withholds information that would establish one side’s claims as baseless.  The impression is given of a scientific or evidence-based debate, where there is actually none. The fallacy is related to false equivalence, but is not quite the same. 


Source: University of California Museum of Paleontology[1]
(used with permission)

This fallacy is also known as ‘Okrent’s law’ named after Daniel Okrent, the first public editor of The New York Times newspaper . He once said: “The pursuit of balance can create imbalance because sometimes something is true,” referring to the phenomenon of the press providing legitimacy to fringe or minority viewpoints in an effort to appear even-handed.

A notorious instance of false balance occurred on 16th August 2012, when WIN TV in Wollongong aired a news story about a measles outbreak in South-West Sydney.  The story appeared to give equal weight to the professional advice of a medical practitioner that everyone should be immunised (against measles); versus an amateur opinion by Meryl Dorey of the so-called Australian Vaccination Network (AVN). Ms. Dorey claimed that ‘All vaccinations in the medical literature have been linked with the possibility of causing autism, not just the measles/mumps/rubella vaccine.’  The TV reporter concluded ‘Choice groups are calling for greater research into the measles vaccine’.

The ABC’s Media Watch program was scathing in its criticism of this news story:

‘Choice groups’. They actually only quoted one group, which claims that it’s in favour of the public having a choice. But Meryl Dorey’s deceptively-named Australian Vaccination Network is in fact an obsessively anti-vaccination pressure group that’s immunised itself against the effect of scientific evidence.  Dorey’s claim about the medical literature linking vaccination and autism is pure, unadulterated baloney.[2]

On the Media Watch web site, there is a link to a long statement by the NSW Director of Health Protection, Dr. Jeremy McAnulty. Amongst other things, he says that:

Any link between measles vaccine and autism has been conclusively discredited by numerous in-depth studies and reviews by credible experts, including the World Health Organisation, the American Academy of Paediatrics and the UK Research Council. Statements erroneously linking measles vaccine and autism were associated with a decline in measles vaccination, which led to a measles outbreak in the UK in the past.[3]

Jonathon Holmes of Media Watch went on to say:

So why on earth, we asked WIN TV, did it include the AVN’s misleading claims in a news story about a measles outbreak?… Medical practitioners – choice groups. One opinion as valid as the other. It’s a classic example of what many – especially despairing scientists – call ‘false balance’ in the media…To put it bluntly, there’s evidence, and there’s bulldust. It’s a journalist’s job to distinguish between them, not to sit on the fence and bleat ‘balance’. Especially when people’s health is at risk.[2]

As the British Medical Journal put it last year in an editorial about the ‘debate’ in the UK:

The media’s insistence on giving equal weight to both the views of the anti-vaccine camp and to the overwhelming body of scientific evidence …made people think that scientists themselves were divided over the safety of the vaccine, when they were not. [4]

Other common examples of false balance in media reporting on science issues include the topics of man-made vs. natural climate change and evolution vs. creationism, as well as medicine vs quackery. As the Understanding Science web site says:

Balanced reporting is generally considered good journalism, and balance does have its virtues. The public should be able to get information on all sides of an issue — but that doesn’t mean that all sides of the issue deserve equal weight. Science works by carefully examining the evidence supporting different hypotheses and building on those that have the most support. Journalism and policies that falsely grant all viewpoints the same scientific legitimacy effectively undo one of the main aims of science: to weigh the evidence.[1]

False balance can sometimes originate from similar motives as sensationalism, where media producers and editors may feel that a story portrayed as a contentious debate will be more commercially successful to pursue than a more accurate account of the issue. However, unlike most other media biases, false balance may ironically stem from a misguided attempt to avoid bias; producers and editors may confuse treating competing views fairly—i.e., in proportion to their actual merits and significance—with treating them equally, by giving them equal time to present their views even when those views may be known beforehand to be based on false or unreliable information. In other words, two sides of a debate are automatically and mistakenly assumed to have equal value regardless of their respective merits.


[1] Beware of false balance: Are the views of the scientific community accurately portrayed? Understanding Science. University of California Museum of Paleontology. 25 February 2014 http://undsci.berkeley.edu/article/0_0_0/sciencetoolkit_04

[2] False Balance Leads To Confusion Media Watch Episode 35, 1 October 2012, ABC1. http://www.abc.net.au/mediawatch/transcripts/s3601416.htm

[3] Media Statement – Immunisation. Dr. Jeremy McAnulty, Director of Health Protection, NSW Health, 28th September, 2012.

[4] When balance is bias. British Medical Journal, Christmas Edition, 2011.

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