Monday, November 21, 2016

The false-false-balance problem

Until recently, journalism in America prided itself on objectivity -- to report the truth, without taking sides. That's because big debates are always complexed and nuanced, and that both sides are equally reasonable. Therefore, when writing an article, reporters attempt to achieve balance by quoting people/experts/proponents on both sides of an issue.

But what about those times when one side is clearly unreasonable? You'd never try to achieve balance by citing those who believe in aliens and big-foot, for example.Thus, journalists have come up with the theory of false-balance to justify being partisan and one-sided on certain issues.

Typical examples where journalists cite false-balance is reporting on anti-vaxxers, climate-change denialists, and Creationists. More recently, false-balance has become an issue in the 2016 Trump election.

But this concept of false-balance is wrong. It's not that anti-vaxxers, denialists, Creationists, and white supremacists are reasonable. Instead, the issue is that the left-wing has reframed the debate. They've simplified it into something black-and-white, removing nuance, in a way that shows their opponents as being unreasonable. The media then adopts the reframed debate.

Let's talk anti-vaxxers. One of the policy debates is whether the government has the power to force vaccinations on people (or on people's children). Reasonable people say the government doesn't have this power. Many (if not most) people hold this opinion while agreeing that vaccines are both safe and effective (that they don't cause autism).

Consider this February 2015 interview with Chris Christy. He's one of the few politicians who have taken the position that government can override personal choice, such as in the case of an outbreak. Yet, when he said "parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well, so that's the balance that the government has to decide", he was broadly reviled as an anti-vaxxer throughout the media. The press reviled other Republican candidates the same way, even while ignoring almost identical statements made at the same time by the Obama administration. They also ignored clearly anti-vax comments from both Hillary and Obama during the 2008 election.

Yes, we can all agree that anti-vaxxers are a bunch of crazy nutjobs. In calling for objectivity, we aren't saying that you should take them seriously. Instead, we are pointing out the obvious bias in the way the media attacked Republican candidates as being anti-vaxxers, and then hiding behind "false-balance".

Now let's talk evolution. The issue is this: Darwinism has been set up as some sort of competing religion against belief in God(s). High-schools teach children to believe in Darwinism, but not to understand Darwinism. Few kids graduate understanding Darwinism, which is why it's invariably misrepresented in mass-media (X-Men, Planet of the Apes, Waterworld, Godzilla, Jurassic Park, etc.). The only movie I can recall getting evolution correct is Idiocracy.

Also, evolution has holes in it. This isn't a bad thing in science, every scientific theory has holes. Science isn't a religion. We don't care about the holes. That some things remain unexplained by a theory doesn't bother us. Science has no problem with gaps in knowledge, where we admit "I don't know". It's religion that has "God of the gaps", where ignorance isn't tolerated, and everything unexplained is explained by a deity.

The hole in evolution is how the cell evolved. The fossil record teaches us a lot about multi-cellular organisms over the last 400-million years, but not much about how the cell evolved in the 4-billion years on planet Earth before that. I can point to radio isotope dating and fossil finds to prove dinosaurs existed 250,000 million to 60 million years ago, thus disproving your crazy theory of a 10,000 year-old Earth. But I can't point to anything that disagrees with your view that a deity created the original cellular organisms. I don't agree with that theory, but I can't disprove it, either.

The point is that Christians have a good point that Darwinism is taught as a competing religion. You see this in the way books that deny holes in knowledge, insisting that Darwinism explains even how cells evolved, and that doubting Darwin is blasphemy. 

The Creationist solution is wrong, we can't teach religion in schools. But they have a reasonable concern about religious Darwinism. The solution there is to do a better job teaching it as a science. If kids want to believe that one of the deities created the first cells, then that's okay, as long as they understand the fossil record and radioisotope dating.

Now let's talk Climate Change. This is a tough one, because you people have lost your collective minds. The debate is over how much change? how much danger? how much costs?. The debate is not over Is it true?. We all agree it's true, even most Republicans. By keeping the debate between the black-and-white "Is global warming true?", the left-wing can avoid the debate "How much warming?".

Consider this exchange from one of the primary debates:

Moderator: ...about climate change...
RUBIO: Because we’re not going to destroy our economy ...
Moderator: Governor Christie, ... what do you make of skeptics of climate change such as Senator Rubio?
CHRISTIE: I don’t think Senator Rubio is a skeptic of climate change.
RUBIO: I'm not a denier/skeptic of climate change.

The media (in this case CNN) is so convinced that Republican deny climate change that they can't hear any other statement. Rubio clearly didn't deny Climate Change, but the moderator was convinced that he did. Every statement is seen as outright denial, or code words for denial. Thus, convinced of the falseness of false-balance, the media never sees the fact that most Republicans are reasonable.

Similar proof of Republican non-denial is this page full of denialism quotes. If you actually look at the quotes, you'll see that when taken in context, virtually none of the statements deny climate change. For example, when Senator Dan Sulliven says "no concrete scientific consensus on the extent to which humans contribute to climate change", he is absolutely right. There is 97% consensus that mankind contributes to climate change, but there is widespread disagreement on how much.

That "97% consensus" is incredibly misleading. Whenever it's quoted, the speaker immediately moves the bar, claiming that scientists also agree with whatever crazy thing the speaker wants, like hurricanes getting worse (they haven't -- at least, not yet).

There's no inherent reason why Republicans would disagree with addressing Climate Change. For example, Washington State recently voted on a bill to impose a revenue neutral carbon tax. The important part is "revenue neutral": Republicans hate expanding government, but they don't oppose policies that keep government the same side. Democrats opposed this bill, precisely because it didn't expand the size of government. That proves that Democrats are less concerned with a bipartisan approach to addressing climate change, but instead simply use it as a wedge issue to promote their agenda of increased regulation and increased spending. 

If you are serious about address Climate Change, then agree that Republicans aren't deniers, and then look for bipartisan solutions.


The point here is not to try to convince you of any political opinion. The point here is to describe how the press has lost objectivity by adopting the left-wing's reframing of the debate. Instead of seeing balanced debate between two reasonable sides, they see a warped debate between a reasonable (left-wing) side and an unreasonable (right-wing) side. That the opposing side is unreasonable is so incredible seductive they can never give it up.

That Christie had to correct the moderator in the debate should teach you that something is rotten in journalism. Christie understood Rubio's remarks, but the debate moderator could not. Journalists cannot even see the climate debate because they are wedded to the left-wing's corrupt view of the debate.

The issue of false-balance is wrong. In debates that evenly divide the population, the issues are complex and nuanced, both sides are reasonable. That's the law. It doesn't matter what the debate is. If you see the debate simplified to the point where one side is obviously unreasonable, then it's you who has a problem.

Dinner with Rajneeshees

One evening I answered the doorbell to find a burgundy clad couple on the doorstep. They were followers of the Bagwan Shree Rajneesh, whose cult had recently purchased a large ranch in the eastern part of the state. No, they weren't there to convert us. They had come for dinner. My father had invited them.

My father was a journalist, who had been covering the controversies with the cult's neighbors. Yes, they were a crazy cult which later would breakup after committing acts of domestic terrorism.  But this couple was a pair of young professionals (lawyers) who, except for their clothing, looked and behaved like normal people. They would go on to live normal lives after the cult.

Growing up, I lived in two worlds. One was the normal world, which encourages you to demonize those who disagree with you. On the political issues that concern you most, you divide the world into the righteous and the villains. It's not enough to believe the other side wrong, you most also believe them to be evil.

The other world was that of my father, teaching me to see the other side of the argument. I guess I grew up with my own Atticus Finch (from To Kill a Mockingbird), who set an ideal. In much the same way that Atticus told his children that they couldn't hate even Hitler, I was told I couldn't hate even the crazy Rajneeshees.


Kevin Christopher Henry said...

Did it occur to you that the moderator based his characterization on Rubio's past comments, and not simply on the last thing Rubio said in the debate itself?

For example, this is from a 2010 Tampa Bay Tribune article: "In an interview with the Tribune on that subject Friday, Rubio called Crist "a believer in man-made global warming." "I don't think there's the scientific evidence to justify it," Rubio said."

"Skepticism" is a pretty accurate word to describe that position.

So: the moderator accurately summarized the candidate's stated opinion on the subject, and then gave him ample opportunity to clarify his current position. Sounds like reasonable journalism to me.

Unknown said...

I believe that removes nuance. As even there Rubio's comment to Crist doesn't indicate a level of contribution. It would suggest, however, that he believes Crist thinks it is a large amount of man-made contribution. Likewise we can look at Rubio's "I don't think there's the scientific evidence to justify it." What is "it"? Global Warming or perhaps 'the extent of man-made contribution.'

The problem with a lot of these debates is we assume we are all talking about the same terms, and wind up being unable to talk because we're unaware we're all using our terms slightly differently than each other. If we could clarify our definitions I'm sure we'd all find each other far more reasonable.

"Skeptic" is a good word, but the thing about Skeptics is they by definition are awaiting evidence to be convinced. Personally I believe Climate Change is real, a majority of it is manmade.

Also to be fair to Rubio, 2010 is 6 years ago at this point. Science is constantly moving and maybe the mounting evidence now has affected his opinion of 6 years ago. I would ask him to clarify his old opinion.

Chris said...

It's amazing how your comment almost single-handedly supports the author's point.

Rubio says he doesn't believe there's enough evidence for him to believe in "man-made" climate change. He is quoted directly in the very article you post saying that he doesn't disagree with climate change itself, just how much impact humans have on it and how much impact attempts to rein it in should have on the economy. That article is a perfect example of the poor journalism that this author speaks of, given that the headline implies Rubio denies climate change and then quotes Rubio in that very article as accepting climate change.

What you have linked to is basically proof of the author's premise that journalists are ideologically driven to ignore nuance and frame people they dislike as idiots.

Also, the moderator didn't give Rubio time to clarify his position, he called Rubio a skeptic as part of a question to the other candidate. How is that "ample opportunity to clarify his current position?"

Kevin Christopher Henry said...

Chris, I suggest you look at the full transcript instead of the heavily edited version used in this post. The moderator asks Rubio a direct question about climate change, to which Rubio gives a long and uninterrupted answer. Then, when Rubio objects to the skeptic label, the moderator allows him another 149 words to clarify his actual position. Yes, that is more than ample opportunity when you consider that this was a debate with 11 candidates covering the full gamut of issues.

The public discussion about climate change is about man-made climate change. It is a facile and meaningless observation that the climate has changed at times in the Earth's history. When the term climate change is used in public discourse it is about anthropogenic climate change. That is what the 97% figure is about, etc. So if someone says they don't believe the evidence for "man-made global warming" then it's reasonable to call them a skeptic, or to say they "question" it (as in the headline you object so strongly to).

Of course, I'm not trying to hold Marco Rubio to these opinions or any others. My only point is that this debate incident was quite reasonable and thus constitutes poor evidence for the author's thesis.

William said...

The author said, "In debates that evenly divide the population, the issues are complex and nuanced, both sides are reasonable. That's the law. "

That is not any 'law'; there is no possible guarantee that both sides are reasonable. Suppose for example that the population is evenly divided on an issue because of media false balance. In other words suppose the 50:50 split is a result of people hearing lies promoted as (or on an equal basis as) truths and not knowing the difference - and in any sufficiently complex and nuanced debate a large part of the population will not know.

Jon the Valiant said...

Kevin, your 97% figure includes scientists who believe humans are responsible for 1% of climate change and scientists who believe humans are responsible for 90% of climate change. It is not a useful statistic to inform public policy decisions.

William said...

Saying it another way: the author is effectively saying that if I can persuade a sufficiently large proportion of the population to accept my argument, by fair means or foul, however pure or ugly the argument, my argument is, by definition, 'reasonable'.

I'll leave it to you to think of some unreasonable ugly arguments that large parts of the population have believed in the past or could quite conceivably believe in the future.

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