The most recent issue of New Philosopher magazine (Australia) explores "balance," a topic students in my "Philosophically Speaking" class examine when we look at a particular branch of Eastern philosophy. This thought-provoking article by Australian philosopher Patrick Stokes considers what balance means in the context of journalism:
"In March 2018, a man named Mike Hughes climbed into a homemade, steam-powered rocket, and launched himself 700 metres above the Mojave Desert floor. ...Like most of us, Mike is entranced by the idea of going into space. Unlike most of us, he wants to do so (at horrendous risk to his life) because he believes the world is flat, and wants to see for himself. 'Do I believe the Earth is shaped like a frisbee? I believe it is. Do I know for sure? No. That’s why I want to go up in space.' Modern flat-earthers have been around for more than two centuries, but in the internet age two interesting shifts seem to have occurred. Firstly, Flat Earth belief has become more prominent, if still decidedly fringe. Becoming a flat-earther is the ultimate act of epistemic rebellion: what better way to declare yourself a free-thinking individualist than to deny a fact everyone else agrees on? Secondly, the term ‘flat-earther’ itself has become a sort of shorthand for someone who believes something so outrageous that nobody is obliged to take their views seriously. A ‘flat-earther’ is not simply someone who believes something ridiculous; they’re someone whose views are so far beyond the pale we don’t need to listen to them at all. Perhaps that’s why we never see flat-earthers interviewed on TV shows about space travel or geography for the sake of ‘balance’. ... On plenty of other topics, however, we get very uncomfortable indeed if the media doesn’t seek out comment from a range of voices. ...
"We look to the media not simply to tell us how things are, but to represent uncertainty fairly too. If all questions of fact and value had clear and unambiguous answers, the media would simply be a conduit for information. But that’s not the world we live in. Our epistemic limitations and the reality of moral and political disagreement means the media also has a role to play as a venue for controversies to play out. If there’s disagreement, we want to hear all sides of that disagreement so we can make up our own minds. ...
"But balance-as-neutrality has serious limits. To see why, ask yourself why we don’t have flat-earthers on TV to provide ‘balance’ in stories about space travel. The answer might seem obvious: if flat earth belief is ridiculous (and it is), then we don’t need to treat it as if it might be true. Balance always operates against a background of decisions, implicit or overt, about whose voices need to be considered and which claims are serious ones. ... So perhaps, surprisingly, ‘balance’ comes into play in a context of largely-settled consensus about which views don’t warrant airtime. It’s simply not possible to include every voice. ...
"The problem is that very often the controversy in question is over whether there even is a controversy to begin with. Some people think the world is flat: does that mean the shape of the world is a controversial topic? If you think the mere fact of disagreement means there’s a controversy there, then pretty much any topic you care to mention will turn out to be controversial if you look hard enough. But in a more substantial sense, there’s no real controversy here at all. The scientific journals aren’t full of heated arguments over the shape of the planet. The university geography departments aren’t divided into warring camps of flattists and spherists. ... But think about certain other scientific ‘controversies’ where competing arguments do get media time, such as climate change, or the safety and efficacy of vaccination. On the one side you have the overwhelming weight of expert opinion; on the other side amateur, bad-faith pseudoscience. In the substantial sense there aren’t even ‘two sides’ here after all.
"Yet that’s not what we see; we just see two talking heads, offering competing views. The very fact both ‘heads’ were invited to speak suggests someone, somewhere has decided they are worth listening to. In other words, the very format implicitly drags every viewpoint to the same level and treats them as serious candidates for being true. That’s fine, you might reply: sapere aude! [from Immanuel Kant's “dare to know.”] Smart and savvy viewers will see the bad arguments or shoddy claims for what they are, right? Except there’s some evidence that precisely the opposite happens. The message that actually sticks with viewers is not 'the bad or pseudoscientific arguments are nonsense', but rather that 'there’s a real controversy here'.
"There’s a name for this levelling phenomenon: false balance. ... False balance occurs when we let in views that haven’t earned their place, or treat non-credible views as deserving the same seat at the table."
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