What is false balance?
False balance is a pseudoscientific debating strategy that tries to pretend that an illegitimate and non-credible source of information is comparable to the bulk of the scientific evidence. It essentially tries to pass of an imposter of science as the real thing. It is a classic aspect of pseudoscience. In reality, information found in shady Facebook groups, on conspiracy YouTube channels and on blogs are rarely as high quality or accurate as peer-reviewed scientific papers and certainly does not come close to the credibility of the bulk of scientific evidence.
In practice, it is often a method that is used to distract from the scientific evidence for a certain position by trying to dilute it with lower quality content or content entirely lacking credibility. Instead of discussing the scientific evidence for an important conclusion, the pseudoscience activist has now derailed the conversation to the minute details of why a particular pseudoscientific source is wrong. Since most people are not experts on all topics, this means that time that could have been spent on describing scientific facts are instead spent on discussing less important and trivial errors.
Finally, false balance is commonly used to justify human atrocities. Genocide deniers often try to portray the perpetrators as victims of a conflict where both sides were equally bad instead of accepting the fact that a genocide has occurred. In fact, the last step of a genocide is genocide denial. Using false balance, genocide deniers hope to absolve themselves and the perpetrators of responsibility, make it acceptable to deny genocides and cause even more distress and physical harm to the real victims of the genocide.
How can you recognize false balance?
At its core, false balance is a distraction (a red herring). It tries to distract from a certain issue by bringing in other, completely unrelated, issues. Recognizing the false balance tactic largely boils down to spotting these distractions. But how do you distinguish a false balance distraction from valid discussions about context? First, context discussions should inform people, not mislead them. Second, and perhaps more important, false balance distractions are used to excuse or downplay harm, whereas most valid context discussions are morally neutral. Third, false balance can also occur as part of other logical fallacies, including tu quoque, whataboutism, false dictionary and false moral equivalency. Understanding these fallacies makes it easier to spot false balance.
The tu quoque fallacy (also known as appeal to hypocrisy) occurs when someone tries to reject an argument by pointing out that the party who made the argument is not being consistent and therefore guilty of hypocrisy which allegedly disproves the argument. However, the fact that some other person is a hypocrite does not disprove the internal logical structure of the argument nor disprove the truth of the premises. Thus, it is also a form of ad hominem. This ties into false balance because the person tries to erect a false balance between that which he or she is accused of and the actions taken by the hypocrite.
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Whataboutism is similar to the tu quoque fallacy, but the distraction can be about anyone or anything. Proponents of untested or dangerous treatments often try to defend their products by pointing out that people get harmed by real treatments as well. However, real treatments have been shown to work, but this is not the case for fake treatments and the proportion of people harmed is much, much less. Thus, the real cost/benefit analysis is very different and there is no balance. This counts as an example of false balance, because the quacks is trying to portray quackery as just as good as or just as bad as real medicine.
Example (Holocaust denial):
The Holocaust is one of the most well-documented events in all of human history. The evidence rests on physical buildings and machines, blueprints, written reports and communications, logbooks, areal surveillance, photographs and eyewitness testimony that all independently converge on the same basic conclusion: the Holocaust is an historical fact. It happened.
Holocaust deniers often use false balance in the form of false moral equivalences. They try to downplay the hideous genocide by Hitler and the Nazis by denying the number of people who died during the Holocaust and exaggerate the number of people who died from the Allied bombing of Dresden. In the Holocaust, about 12 million people where murdered (about 6 million of them were Jews). In the allied bombing of Dresden, about 33 000 people died. Holocaust deniers typically wrongly reduce the number of Holocaust victims by one or two orders of magnitude and inflate the number of victims in Dresden by one order of magnitude in an effort to make them appear comparable. In reality, they are not comparable and even if they where, two wrongs would not make a right. It is also a big difference between intentional genocide of innocent people and victims of war.
No matter how hard Holocaust deniers try, there just is not any equivalence.
False moral equivalency
False moral equivalency is similar to whataboutism, but requires that it involves ethics and morality. Governments guilty of human rights abuses often try to downplay their severity or distract from their existence by pointing out that some other country has also violated human rights. However, just because some other country has also violated human rights does not make their own human rights abuses disappear. Indeed, it is perfectly possible to criticize more than one country for human rights abuses. In fact, this is being done all the time. This is a clear example of false balance. The government that carried out the human rights abuses is trying to portray themselves as no worse than any other country. Holocaust deniers also make false moral equivalences when they falsely underestimate the number of victims of the Holocaust and exaggerate the number of victims due to allied bombings.
False dichotomy is another fallacy that can tie into false balance. Creationists often attack evolution laboring under the mistaken belief that arguments against evolution are arguments for creationism. In practice, they try to build up the case for their own flawed position, while trying to tear down the evidence for evolution. This kind of false balance was explicitly codified in creationist equal time laws that required creationism to be given equal time to evolution if evolution was being taught.
Example (Alternative medicine):
Alternative medicine is not an alternative to medicine. It is primarily a label used for things that either have been tested and found to be ineffective or dangerous or things that have never been tested. A common trope pushed by proponents of various fake or untested treatments that goes under the label of alternative medicine is to try to attack modern medicine and highlight some of its limitations. This includes the fact that there are some chronic medical problems for which no effective medical treatment exists, side effects of effective medication or medical error.
However, problems with real medicine is not evidence that any particular “alternative” treatment works. Evidence for such a treatment would need to come from high-quality randomized controlled trials that tests the supposed alternative against a suitable control group. This control group would need to be given a placebo treatment. Patients would need to be randomly allocated into each treatment arm and double-blinded study protocols where both the treatment provider and the patient cannot tell if they got the treatment being tested or the placebo.
How can you counter false balance?
There are multiple ways to expose and counter the deceptive pseudoscientific tactic known as false balance. The precise countermeasures depend on what kind of false balance argument is being deployed. For the traditional version where someone is trying to balance a legitimate scientific authority with an illegitimate imposter, one can expose the illegitimate side and show that they are not equivalent in terms of credibility. For the other versions of false balance, more specialized refutations are appropriate.
Expose the illegitimate side
This countermeasure involves demonstrating that the “other side” to the mainstream scientific position is not a legitimate or credible source. There are multiple ways to do this depending on the specific context.
For cases where the “other side” is an organization that appears to be superficially credible, show that it is not a credible scientific or medical organization. Typically, these organizations that appear to be scientific are industry organizations, industry-supported think-tanks, or pseudoscientific organization with clear political or ideological biases.
In other cases, someone is trying to put forward a single scientific publication against the bulk of the research literature as revealed in multiple, independent systematic reviews and meta-analyses or consensus statements by scientific or medical organizations. Point out that a single study cannot refuse the bulk of the scientific evidence already available and that getting your ideas published is the first step in science, not the last. Learn more about how to identity what counts as a good scientific source in the article Fake Experts. This article lists many metrics by which to judge scientific expertise. Basically, a good scientific expert is someone with a relevant education, relevant research experience, make claims that are consistent with the bulk of the published scientific research, overlap with the consensus statements published by scientific and medical organization, has a good track record in the past, has not fallen for pseudoscience in other areas and do not have any undisclosed conflicts of interest.
Creationism is the flawed idea that life on earth appeared abruptly in more or less their present form created by the divine being instead of sharing a common ancestry and have changed over time due to natural processes. Evolution is one of the most well-supported explanations in modern science and is supported by a mountain of evidence from biochemistry, paleontology, genetics and many other areas. Creationists usually make arguments based on simplistic misunderstandings of scientific methods, laws and other research results.
The main way that creationists argue involves making claims against evolution and pretending that this in itself is evidence for creationism. However, evidence against one model is not evidence in favor of some other model. Evidence for creationism, if such evidence where to exist, has to be evidence that specifically support whatever model that the creationist supports.
Creationists also often demand that equal time be given to evolution and creationism. However, evolution is robust science and creationism is religious pseudoscience. Science should be taught in science class and not religious dogma. It is just as unreasonable to give equal time to evolution and creationism as it is to give equal time to electricity and magic. Modern variants of this equal time argument involves “teaching the controversy” or “teaching the full range of scientific models” and so on. In reality, it is just a change of terminology and the actual arguments still boil down to the faulty equal time idea.
Highlight the flaws in co-occurring fallacies
False balance deployments are often associated with other, related fallacies. Besides the general way to refute false balance as discussed above, it is often useful to make specific refutations to the specific combination of false balance and other, co-occurring fallacies.
If someone tries to appeal to hypocrisy, point out that two wrongs do not make a right and that it is possible to condemn more than one thing at a time. The fact that some other person did something bad does not mean that the person or organization under discussion can get away with doing something bad.
When someone makes a false balance argument assuming a false dichotomy, point out that arguments against one model is not argument against some other model. Each model can only be supported by specific evidence that favors that model. Evidence against evolution is not evidence for creationism. Demand to see the specific evidence for creationism.
When someone tries to distract from the argument by pointing to something else that is deemed worse, highlight that you can always apply that kind of argument and apply that argument to itself. If someone rejects a given climate mitigation or crime prevention policy by highlighting some other source of climate emissions or crime, disprove that argument by highlighting some even greater source of those problems. Also explain that it is a pointless argument because it leads to paralysis since you could never do anything about any issue unless you first spent millions of dollars researching which issue is really the most severe and which proposed solution really gives the most bang for the buck instead of spending those millions of dollars towards applying solutions that work.
Return focus to the subject
Because the false balance fallacy is, at its core, a form of distraction, the best way to counter it is to return to the subject being discussed. Reject the attempts to derail the conversation and refocus on the core point: the bulk of the scientific evidence shows that the pseudoscience activist is wrong on the facts and no amount of false balance will change that.
False balance is a pseudoscientific debating tactic that revolves around trying to balance real scientific information with falsehoods and pretending that they are the same. This typically involves putting biased industry organizations against real scientific or medical organizations, a single flawed study against the bulk of the scientific literature or making false moral equivalences in an effort to downplay genocide and mass murder. It is easy to counter false balance by exposing the non-credible side as unscientific or flawed and highlighting the fallacies are often accompany false balance arguments. Finally, since false balance is an effort to distract, it is effective to move back the conversation to the scientific facts and refuse to have the discussion derailed.