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Climate change, the theory of evolution and the vaccination-autism debate are just three of the current hot science topics in the media. A common fallacy that people — particularly journalists — commit with regard to these debates is that each opposing party should be treated with equal weight in credibility.
Unlike most political debates, science debates may more likely have one side that far outweighs the other side rather than having two equal sides. For example, astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, host of Cosmos, told CNN in last March that the media has a tendency to treat both sides of a debate equally, but that does not apply in science. “The principle was, whatever story you give, you have to give the opposing view. And then you can be viewed as balanced,” Tyson said.
Thus, giving equal air time to “flat Earthers” is based on the false equivalence fallacy: describing a condition or topic where there appears to be a logical equivalence and credibility between two opposites sides of a debate but when in reality there is none. Thus, science deniers delude themselves with false equivalence to support their claims, and the media tend to use the same fallacy to give both sides an equal share of attention and credibility.
Truly Fallacious, a website that examines different types of logical fallacies, presented several examples of false equivalence. In the case of the creationism and evolution “debate,” those who believe that both should be taught in schools are using false equivalence fallacy to support their belief. “In reality, evolution explains all of the evidence found regarding the diversity of life on Earth, where creationism explains none of it, instead replacing an explanation with ‘God did it’, a decidedly non-explanation,” the website states.
A debate is characterized as false equivalent when one side has valid evidence to support its stance while the opposing side has little or no evidence for support. Even if the deniers have evidence, it is very likely that the evidence is weak or low quality. On December 2013, CBS described one such case of major false equivalence fallacy in the recently cancelled talk show Katie, which featured journalist Katie Couric interviewing two moms who claimed that their daughters suffered serious harm in which one of them died — without evidence — from receiving the human papillomavirus vaccine, Gardasil. The show emphasized more of the emotional and anecdotal stories of the parents, which should not be confused with evidence in support of the truth of their claims. There was relatively little air-time given to the scientific evidence that showed the safety and efficacy of Gardasil.
When hundreds of thousands of people are vaccinated, there is a likelihood that some people will have some health problems, but these problems may possibly stem from other causes. Poor diet, environmental factors or other infections are possible candidates. Dr. Arthur Caplan, director of the division of medical ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City, told CBS that cause and effect needs to be weighed, and that the ailments may not be connected to the vaccine. He added that giving those with anecdotal stories more air-time than those with evidence about efficacy and safety of Gardasil is not providing the public a service to the facts — false equivalence at work. In TV and the media, what sells and drives is the story and its emotional appeal. In science, particularly in health, this should not be the case. Otherwise, it brings misinformation and high risk to the public.
Skeptical Raptor, a website dedicated to “hunting pseudoscience in the internet jungle,” described four ways that science deniers delude themselves with false equivalence fallacy. First, science deniers believe that all claims are a “democracy,” meaning that if a claim receives the most “votes,” like a political election as it happens overnight, then the claim is true because more people support or believe in it. For example, creationists brought forth the petition, A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism, where they got “scientists” to sign it. It states that creationists are skeptical of the scientific claim of natural selection and random mutation making up the complexity and diversity of life, and that Darwinian evolution should carefully examined.
The petition has over 1,200 signatures. Although this may seem valid, the problem is that less than 20 percent of these “scientists” are biologists, in which the number of represents about “0.03 percent of biological scientists in the United States,” excluding the rest of the world. This is not how scientists make a consensus. The scientific method demands careful and vigorous work with the least amount of bias and errors. It is a logical process of observation, experiment, analysis, critical thinking, peer-reviews, and — if necessary — revisions and updates. Scientists from different parts of the world replicate the experiment, and depending on the quality of research and interpretation, scientists would then form a consensus about the evidence that supports a particular principle being researched. As the accumulated evidence becomes more predictive, the hypothesis becomes a scientific theory, which explains how natural phenomena work, be it climate change, plate tectonics or human behavior.
Arriving at any consensus does not happen overnight or with a petition. It could take many months, year or even decades of careful analysis and critical thinking to come up with a scientific theory. “One does not decide that the consensus is wrong through a debate or argument–changing the consensus requires as much research based in the scientific method, as many peer-reviewed publications and as much critique, repetition, and review as the evidence that built the original consensus,” according to Skeptical Raptor.
Other ways that science deniers use false equivalence to delude themselves include appeal to authority (“because so-and-so with power and influence said so”), conspiracy theory (“scientists get together to rally that climate change cause by humans is real”), and “manufactroversy,” a way to conjure a controversy the way that gossips and urban legends are formed and spread. Some journalists then use the false equivalence fallacy to create the illusion of an equal-sized debate when there is none. But such a story often sells and evokes emotions.
From the age of the universe and how the solar system was formed, to the vaccination-autism relationship and evolution, there is no scientific controversy. “There is only a public debate, where one side is using science, and the other side is inventing data, cherry picking research out of low quality journals, or just simply yelling the loudest,” wrote Skeptical Raptor. “But in the real world of logical science, there is no debate. We’ve moved onto uncovering more mysteries of the universe.”
By Nick Ng