The Fallacy of Balance

When it’s Wrong to Treat Both Sides of an Issue as Equal

Howard Gross
Communicating Complexity

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“When people thought the Earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the Earth was spherical they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the Earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the Earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.” — Isaac Asimov, The Relativity of Wrong

Earlier this month, I published two articles examining how binary thinking distorts American politics. In the second piece, I singled out Republicans such as Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, and Marjorie Taylor Greene to underscore the point. To which several readers suggested I was wrong not to also reproach Democrats like Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But doing so would have been wronger.

Balance fallacy — or false equivalence — is a corollary of binary thinking which occurs when someone asserts that two sides of an issue are comparable despite notable differences between them. It often arises from a need to maintain compatibility across opposing beliefs, values, and interactions. According to social psychologist Fritz Heider, such balance is pivotal in relationships among two or more persons if they hope to reasonably share ideas and opinions. In theory, the supposed balance exists at a point somewhere between extremes that minimizes their disparities. In reality, this ideal midpoint is an illusion that obscures important distinctions.

Oh yeah, what about …?

A particularly deceptive form of false equivalence is “whataboutism,” a polished version of a schoolyard taunt. In this instance, when people lack sound arguments to validate their positions, they divert criticism to some other vaguely related matter.

Immediately after the January 6th assault on the U.S. Capitol, Trump apologists sought to link the violence by groups like the Proud Boys with protests by Black Lives Matter that previous summer. The Proud Boys describe themselves as a “pro-western fraternity” promoting “anti-political correctness” and “anti-White guilt.” The governments of Canada and New Zealand take a somewhat different view, having designated them as a terrorist organization that “espouse misogynistic, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, and/or white supremacist ideologies.” In America, “they are known to have committed acts of violence that would be by definition terrorism,” says Elizabeth Neumann, a former assistant secretary for threat prevention in the Department of Homeland Security.

As for the more than 650 demonstrations on June 5, 2020 on behalf of Black Lives Matter (the largest single-day protest in U.S. history), a survey reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that 94 percent of participants reported racial justice and/or police brutality as their principal reasons for joining. About a third of those surveyed were also motivated by women’s rights (39%), LGBTQ rights (36%), or immigration rights (29%). Moreover, research by professors at Harvard University and the University of Connecticut concluded that the events were overwhelmingly peaceful, except for violence initiated by counter-protesters or police.

Size Matters

In fact, to find an occasion comparable to the Capitol insurrection requires reaching back more than half-a-century to left-wing groups like the Weather Underground, which declared war against the United States government in 1970 and subsequently bombed the Capitol, the Pentagon, and the State Department. Yet even this is a sort of false equivalence, in that there is a difference in magnitude between what are being equated. According to a comparative analysis by the Justice Department, though left-wing violence clearly occurred during the late 1960’s, right-wing extremism has been a problem throughout much of the nation’s history.

This has certainly been the case of late. Data gathered by the Anti-Defamation League reveals that of the 443 murders by extremists during the past decade, 75 percent were the work of right-wing hardliners (two-thirds of whom were also white supremacists). Islamic militants were responsible for about 20 percent, while left-wing radicals accounted for just four percent. Numbers such as these belie the notion that current political polarization is symmetrical.

Absence of Facts

Nonetheless, the balance fallacy is alive and well, especially across the news media. Albeit not as disingenuous as whataboutism, “bothsidesism” is a classic editorial process meant to square opposing viewpoints by allotting equal weight to each under the guise of fairness. Unfortunately, it can do more harm than good. Researchers at Northwestern University have determined that approaching controversial topics this way raises doubts about genuine consensus. Likewise, parroting misinformation, even unwittingly, creates confusion about what is true.

The problem is compounded when crucial information is omitted. Given the ongoing swing to the extreme within the Republican party, it seems logical, at least to a couple of leading publications, that the same is happening on the other side of the aisle. A New York Times article, The Vanishing Moderate Democrat, posits that the party has “moved significantly to the left.” So much so that its stances on issues related to criminal justice, race, abortion, and gender identity no longer jibe with the general electorate. This, despite multiple polls that show, except for criminal justice, most voters agree with these positions.

Over at The Economist, a piece entitled Democrats in America are realising they must moderate or die argues that progressive Democrats have had an outsize influence over the party and its perception. It claims that “since 2018 the celebrity status given to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the champions of the movement, and a group of like-minded legislators known as ‘the Squad’ has, for better and worse, raised the profile of their ideas.” What it fails to acknowledge is that AOC and colleagues owe much of their notoriety to the press, which has given considerably more than warranted attention to those law makers it deems extreme.

1 + 1 ≠ Balance

In spite of their best efforts, however, the media have largely failed to convince the public of their impartiality. A survey by the Pew Research Center found that nearly 80 percent of respondents think news organizations favor one side or the other when covering political and social concerns. Two-thirds believe they do so based on their own agendas.

To make matters worse, recent decisions by Republicans to not cooperate with the so-called mainstream media, and to shut them out of campaign events, will further shatter the facade of balance. In response, news organizations may choose to include more misinformation in their coverage to keep of appearances of fairness.

For their part, some journalists have begun to question the merits of bothsidesism. In a separate Pew sampling, 55 percent of news professionals queried say that every side of an issue does not always deserve equal coverage. New York Times columnist David Leonhart, for example, has written that “centrist bias, as I see it, confuses the idea of centrism (which is very much an ideology) with objectivity and fairness.”

Daily Beast correspondent Wajahat Ali more pointedly asks “what both sides”?

“You have one side, flawed, which at least stands for democracy. The radicals on the liberals want Medicare for All. And they say, defund the police. The mainstream of the Republican Party voted to decertify a free and fair election and fomented a violent insurrection that took over the U.S. Capitol and killed five people. What both sides? One side believes in climate change; they go about it a different way, how they want to combat it. Another side believes that climate change is a hoax created by China. What both sides? One side, the first thing that he did when he got in office, Joe Biden canceled the Muslim ban. The other side, the first thing they did when they got into power was implement a flawed Muslim ban that they used the five/four Supreme Court to put into practice, right? What both sides? There are no both sides.”

Indeed, in a world as complex and diverse as this, the notion of genuine balance is not merely a fallacy, it can be a pitfall since propositions that ignore or devalue real differences can further inflame already dire circumstances. As for me, when Democrats refuse to accept the results of a legitimate election and instead try to forcefully overturn it; when they promote conspiracy theories that lead to mass murders; when they deny the rights of young people to choose their own lifestyles; or if they ever claim the existence of Jewish space lasers, I will willingly point a finger in their direction.

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Howard Gross
Communicating Complexity

Making complex ideas easier to access, understand, and use