Friday, October 18, 2013

Handy concept #5: False equivalence

Intellectual Toolbox Week concludes with a concept ripped from the headlines. 

    Did the Civil War actually occur?
     Well, on one side, there is an enormous mass of historical documents—letters, photographs, diaries, books—describing the war in enormous detail.
     And on the other side, there aren't any movies of it—you'd think there would be, some news footage of battles, somewhere, if something like a four-year-conflict had actually ripped America apart Nor does any American living today remember it... 
      I could go on, but you get the point. It's stupid, my objection about the movies based on ignorance: motion pictures weren't developed until decades after the Civil War ended.
     But we tolerate other, less obvious ignorance-based arguments. Why? One reason we can dismiss Civil War Denial so easily is there aren't a passionate band of advocates arguing otherwise. Here is where people, who are fair at heart, to a fault, especially the media, screw up, because they accept an argument where none exists. We give the benefit of doubt too easily to crazy people.
     Holocaust denial is the classic example of this. Approximately 6 million Jews were killed by the Nazis during World War II through methodical extermination, a fact completely documented, but also one that is uncomfortable for anti-Semites, who don't like to be confronted with the natural result of their hate, nor recognize an event that tends to create sympathy for a group of people they despise. So they argue the whole thing is a lie, scraping together what inconsistencies they can dig up, variance in testimony, in evidence, faltering specific logistics of certain camps, strained arguments, fabrications and speculations. Being able to lie on such a grand scale themselves, it's easy for them to assign the ability to others.
Plaque at the Harvard Museum of Natural History
     For a long time, they got a more respectful hearing than they deserved, from a world used to listening to historical re-evaluations seemingly based on fact. If not respect, then a certain tolerance. An undeserved tolerance; Holocaust denial is not a field of scholarship, but a symptom of anti-Semitism. The media seems to get that, now, generally, and is pretty good about not taking the bait. But it took a while.
    Not so far along are subjects such as evolution, a fact like the Holocaust, as undeniable as electricity. Yet we have serious attention paid to creationism, a fancy word for Biblical doctrine, supported by no evidence at all, whose major rhetorical point is a misunderstanding of the word "theory." 
    Nevertheless, they would teach creationism in public schools, and some places in America actually do. Those who push the creationist viewpoint -- i.e, push their own religion -- try to pretend that these are just different opinions of equal weight, varying theories all worthy of consideration, and that to dismiss their view for the simple reason it's completely untrue by any standard of evidence is narrow-mindedness. Many people buy that.
    We saw false equivalence during the government shut-down, which was engineered and created by the Republican Party. But to say so smacked of the partisan boosterism that is so unattractive on Fox News. So many reputable news outlets -- and I'm guilty of a little bit of this too -- drifted toward "a plague on both their Houses" false balance where none was merited. This is such a problem with the non-right wing media that some have coined the term "fairness bias" to describe it
    Not everything has two equal sides. Sometimes the two sides are the right side and the wrong side. That this mirrors the absolutist logic of deluded zealots is unfortunate, but the alternative -- give folly more credit than it is due out of some misplaced idea of fairness— is even worse. Treating everyone the same only works when there is a certain sameness or when differences are of style, not substance. A roomful of 5-year-olds should be treated equally, their merits and deficiencies set aside, temporarily, in the name of entry-level education. Outside kindergarten, however, in the real world, we are allowed to favor what's true and dismiss what's bullshit. In this case, politeness is overrated. 


  1. Of course, some people do deny that the Civil War happened. They call it the "War of Northern Aggression."

    1. There were times during this government shutdown that I prayed for the ghost of General Sherman to rise from his grave and begin his work again.

  2. The "both sides do it" school of journalism is killing our country. Folly and lies should be called out, and called out at the time.

    Instead, we have people like Chuck Todd, of the supposedly liberal MSNBC, saying it's not his job to fact check, but rather the President's responsibility to get his message out better than his opponents--even though his opponents are repeating oft-debunked lies.

  3. Having dealt with holocaust deniers in the past, it's so much a part of their identity that it's almost a waste of time dealing with them. It's the same way with people who have staked everything upon their politics. It's a shame how many people live manipulated by those who would prey upon their fears.

  4. False equivalence is absolutely a problem in contemporary journalism, but I wonder whether this feeds or is fed by the cognitive dissonance so feverishly present within patches of American society today.

    And in a time where the internet has made it so easy to put forth an opinion only to be publicly contested and mocked by the dregs of society, it's strange to consider that some voices may use false equivalence as a method of dodging these ignorant gripes; a sort of preventative barricade that only the well educated would attempt to skewer before they themselves are potentially dragged into the caustic back and forth present in so many comment sections online.

    If only our schools focused more on logic and critical thinking skills and less on standardized testing, maybe the future of this country would look less like a satire come to life.

  5. Well-said Jonathan. If I could teach any course to high school students, I think it would be on the history of deception. Also -- did you know I did cognitive dissonance on Tuesday? Under the post about riding bikes with the mayor

  6. "Two sides to every story, and only two," sums up what I least like about most mainstream journalism.


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