False Balance — what is it and why is it dangerous?

False balance is the tactic of presenting opposing opinions on a topic as equal when the evidence is heavily weighted on one side. It is a recurrent trend in the media in this day and age. Ever increasingly common and spanning a number of areas. Climate change, vaccination effects and evolution versus intelligent design are the most popular ones we see. Surely seeing differing viewpoints on a topic allow for a more informed public, right? While it does allow for more opinions to be heard it creates the impression that these are arguments are more equally balanced in evidence than is actually true. This, coupled with the tendency for sensationalized stories to gain more traction, unfortunately has lead to a loss of trust in science. And scientists are struggling to be heard in a way that accurately represents them and their work.

Impartiality is one of the core aspects of journalism. The attempt to remain unbiased is a critical aspect to reporting news. False balances are created when journalists and reporting agencies are doing their utmost to avoid bias. If you can present two opposing sides to a topic then you are impartial and unbiased. However, it is damaging and unfortunately misleading to the public. It gives weight and credence to those who do not have the evidence to back up their stance. This style of “balance” also leads to conflict, and conflict sells. While most journalists have the best of intentions by way of showing opposing views and allowing the public to make up their own mind you cannot ignore what can come from that conflict: attention.

We live in a world of social media. The world’s’ information is available at our fingertips every moment of every day. Something extra is needed to grab our attention. An issue that will drive conversation, engagement, retweets, sharing the article hashtagging the piece and online arguments draw us all in. Having two voices expressing very different beliefs on a topic is a surefire way to get that. Which one peaks interest more? An article on the MMR vaccine with a expert detailing how many lives the vaccine has saved and the copious amounts of studies and clinical data proving that is no related risk of autism development. Or a piece where you have one person presenting proof and having to defend their stance against someone who speaks very emotively about vaccine damage and mercury and more often than not mentions “big pharma” as orchestrating damage to patients to pad the bottom line. Alas we know which ones gets the biggest draw.

Why is this so dangerous when it comes to science? It undercuts and undermines the work of scientists. If an equal opinion is so readily available to every single scientific fact or discovery well the other opinion is just as credible too right? We are losing faith in science. Anti science rhetoric is gaining traction. More and more powerful individuals are expressing doubt and scepticism in science. Voices of doubt are getting louder and louder. The false balance premise allows people to claim that they are just “asking questions”. It is an unfortunate side effect of trying to appease all sides. Science and related topics can also be seen as exclusionary, entirely driven by people who are unrelatable. The false equivalency driving debate and conflict forces those involved into combative completely opposing viewpoints. Instead of a discussion that leads to further understanding and growth we see people becoming entrenched and unwilling to listen. This is particularly obvious when it comes to the vaccine debate. Since the 1990s the anti vaccination movement has gained rapid traction. In part due to the work of Andrew Wakefield. 20 years ago, this disgraced formed gastroenterologist published a paper with 12 others in The Lancet. They claimed to there was a link between the MMR vaccine and a condition they identified as autistic enterocolitis. A combination of a ‘regressive’ autism and inflammatory bowel disease. The fact that the MMR vaccine was attributed to be a cause within two weeks of inoculation was what caught the attention of the media. The shockwaves of what this paper did to the medical field can still be felt today. Last month alone 15 cases of measles were identified in Limerick and one in Dublin. Parents still question if it safe to vaccinate their children. Medical professionals and scientific experts struggle to reassure people that their children are safe. It is not their fault; a parents’ first priority is to their child and they will do any to ensure their wellbeing. Doubt continues to be fostered when it comes to vaccines. The evidence is in, they save lives. We live in a time where we have managed to eliminate diseases completely. But when such suspicions are allowed to foster it is actually putting lives at risk. How does this belief still have such sway today though?

Again it boils down to how these things are reported. I mean no disrespect to journalists but it can be difficult for someone under deadline to have a full comprehension of a topic and reiterate that in a clear manner trying to maintain an unbiased view. Scientific papers can be dry and tricky to portray in a exciting enticing way. People read them and try to redress them in a way that grabs attention. Exaggerating the effects of something or making out the results of a study to be a lot more definitive than they actually are. Last year it was reported that roasting or frying starchy foods like bread could increase of cancer. When starchy foods are roasted acrylamide is formed. Acrylamide has been shown to cause certain cancers in animals. It was classified as a Class 2A carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Class 2A is a designation used when there limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans as well as sufficient evidence in experimental animals. So basically erring on the side of caution. There is not absolute evidence one way or the other but there is evidence to show that something is there. Limiting intake is probably a good idea but there are a great deal more risk factors to be taken into consideration first. Luckily people very quickly made the correction in the media but sensationalising scientific research followed by a quick denial only erodes public trust in science. Science is not absolute. It is about the learning and understanding of what we and the universe are made of. It is a constant evolution of knowledge and ideas. Each new development require a slight shift of what we think is true. Anti-science people often cry that scientists don’t know everything. Yes that is entirely the point. Those of us who work in scientific fields are not all knowing. That is what drives us in the field. Theories and ideas are eternally shifting and growing as we gain more evidence. This leads to problems when new developments are reported on as concrete and definitive and also frequently sensationalized. Then when inevitably the correction and clarification pieces follow people reading them get confused.

This confusion can lead to suspicion with the general public. If scientists can’t make up their minds why should we listen to them? When viewed with the tendency of the media to have false equivalency, science seems to be a lot more steeped in doubt and uncertainty than is accurate. If for every theory and development you can easily find a voice that disagrees with it and appears to have the same level of credence, is there hope for trust? Once doubt is created in the public it is almost impossible to reverse it. It has now been 20 years since Wakefield and his paper and we are still seeing parents panic about their children being vaccinated. Stories of vaccine damage still run rampant online.Then you see articles discussing vaccines with two opposing sides. The opposing parties are being presented to us as being highly comparable, so they must have proportional amounts of evidence to back them up right? If we present science as constantly in conflict and if we are unable to come to a clear consensus then how can there be any faith in it? These are the problems with false balances and an unfortunate side effect of journalists attempt to remain nonpartisan in reporting. There is way to report on science fairly and justly without needing to facilitate an opposing side. Simply by looking at the evidence on a particular area such as vaccination; it is usually very obvious very quickly where the evidence leads you.

On the flip side of this problem is this type of reporting that is has on the scientists themselves. Just as trust is compromised by the public in them, they lose trust in how their work is going to be represented. It can look like an uphill struggle to be seen and heard in a way that does not involve having to prove yourself against someone who disagrees with you. Work has been taken and misrepresented, sensationalized. Luckily we are seeing more and more scientists seeing how important being social media savvy and writing extensively is to science exposure. Becoming advocates for good science and journalists in their own regard. Having an open line of communication between the media and scientists is key in allowing science to be shown in an accurate way. We need to work to establish faith that scientific evidence can and will be reported on independently. There will always be discussion and debate on such things, but we also need to allow the evidence to speak for itself. Just as anti science stories are gaining traction in the social media age; awareness of scientific advocacy is too. There is an audience for it, a need for it. People want to be informed. There is a human need for knowledge and accuracy and fair representation is critical in that.

It is more crucial than ever that we remain aware of the trend towards false balance reporting. The long lasting effects of bad science and pseudoscience and in fact outright lying has never been clearer. Their ability to spread and be heard has never been quicker. The false balances being shown, either due to genuine attempts for impartial reporting or for more coverage have an impact on the public mind. Not all scientific theories are steeped in doubt and controversy. There are things which have the most evidence and they need to be shown as such. If we want to remain well informed the facts must be presented to us in a way that allows us to get an accurate view of the evidence. By being active in fair reporting and avoiding debate for the sake of debate we may be able to restore faith in science and allow scientists to trust that they will be heard without fear of misrepresentation.