March 14, 2010


Nothing matches the shrill accusation that an assertion is not “fair and balanced.” Make a claim. Someone hollers “not fair and balanced” from the wings, and an opposing, contradictory theory, and the evidence for it, spring into existence. Poof. The surest thing in the universe- a punched return ticket on the Faith Train.

This is how the argument seems to work. No statement, opinion or fact can be credible, unless it is accompanied by the “other side of the controversy-“ a contradictory “fact.” Any point of view can be summarily dismissed unless it is accompanied by its negation: the credential of a balancing, opposing point of view.

No simply stated assertion can be valid.

But let’s face it. Facts aren’t each packaged with a bonus self-contradiction. Opinions don’t come with symmetrical counter-arguments attached. The worst ones certainly don’t. The bizarre utterances of Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck and their ilk are inflammatory, irresponsible and unsupportable. They do not politely supply opposing views.

We know that this apparent nonsense derails sensible conversation. We cannot quite make out why. We fumble with the baffling power this “fair and balanced” thing has in the minds of those who use it. This does more sinister damage than first appears. With some analysis we can see how it works. We can resist and reclaim.

The accusation that opinions or assertions are not “fair and balanced” does nothing (really) to discredit them. It does not constitute a counterargument. It isn’t even an argument. It certainly isn’t evidence. It is a personal attack on the person making it  – ad hominem for being unfair and unbalanced. It pretends to discredit their legitimacy or authority or integrity. It contemptuously dismisses their standing to make an assertion or have an opinion.

We hear a commonplace aphorism about what makes a claim or a theory “scientific:”

To be scientific, assertions or theories are subject in principle to the possibility of disproof: that there is conceivable evidence that would contradict them.

(Karl Popper and provenance of theory of Falsifiability:

Sometimes we hear this as a definition of science itself. It does have the ring of a “theory.” This alone doesn’t appear to mean much or do much harm in our culture wars. Maybe it confers some vague middle-brow legitimacy. It does in some trivial sense help to give meaning to the term “science” within the narrow box-canyon of unprovable, faith based beliefs. But it is not clear that we need it.

We often hear this little trope –this “theory” – foreshortened: The scientific is disprovable. This foreshortening is an error. To say that the scientific is disprovable is utterly different from the theory we attribute to Popper and Kuhn. It has proved to be a very damaging linguistic mutilation. It seems like a harmless (if mindless) trope, until we examine how it engenders murky, destructive beliefs that do startling damage.

We invite slippage and imprecision in the usage of the term “disprovable.” Can “disprovable” here mean “can be disproved?” Can it mean “disproved?” Uh-oh. “Scientific” theories are disprovable. Science Philosophers say so.” That means there is evidence that disproves them.

Anti-science polemic relies on a popular vulnerability to the mistaken idea that anything considered scientific has evidence that contradicts it.  Incredible. A “thing” is only eligible to be true if it is equally, symmetrically, not true! Any “theory,” any “evidence-based” claim, automatically manifests an opposing “anti-claim.” This will be in the form of a belief. It will be undetectable, undisprovable and unprovable. Like anti-matter and anti-gravity, this is anti-science. Yet it will convey a veil of scientific validity. Think this is crazy? Go ask someone at the local evangelical church.

It isn’t enough that recruiting scientific validity for an assertion invents an opposing belief. In the popular imagination, it implies that there is –equally scientific–  evidence to support that belief, and that this fictive evidence disproves the original claim. Under the rubric of… science!

Parenthetically, we know that evidence that contradicts (or disproves) a proposition does not affirmatively prove anything. But there is a popular belief that disproving or discrediting a theory or proposition somehow proves that a contradictory or opposing explanation exists and is true

This series of (in)convolutions is a mutilated, logical horror. It is muddled and fallacious enough to be difficult to disentangle. We are temporarily stunned and baffled by tautological shock-and-awe. Suddenly the rubric of science seems to somehow validate blurry, unstated claims that are overtly anti-science. We are wordless. We wonder why those who intone the magic words fair and balanced look at us, wordlessly, with such triumphant defiance. It is because we haven’t imagined the magnitude of the logical blunders that fly before our eyes.

We do get a useful inversion or (commutative operation) from our little “definition,” though. This is of more value to genuine thoughtful inquiry. It seems to be the real point. It goes beyond identifying what are credible speculations and claims about the world, and significantly, helps us see what are not:

Assertions for which there is no conceivable evidence that might contradict them are not regarded as scientific.

We seem to allow, without questioning, the following distorting simplification:

There is no conceivable (“scientific”) evidence that might support them. And this seems to be accepted as amounting to the same thing: Assertions for which there is no imaginable evidence are not regarded as scientific. There isn’t, and can’t be, any such evidence. Hence, they are not “scientific.” They are beliefs, taken on faith, only.

We are vulnerable to another foreshortening, too. We truncate: “faith-based beliefs are not subject to evidence that might disprove them” becomes “faith-based beliefs are not subject to disproof.” Popular usage interprets this as “faith-based beliefs cannot be disproved.” Say that again. Faith-based beliefs can’t be disproved. What have we done? If this strains credulity, pose this question at tea-bagging soiree and see how people really unleash the hunt for coherence.

This (inadvertent?) series of fallacies and errors distracts us from reasoning. We have gotten this far without remarking the obvious fact that scientific “theories” (like evolution and human causation for climate change) regarded as credible- not to say “true-” just do not have meaningful evidence that contradicts them.

“Rules For Axioms: I. Not to omit any necessary principle without asking whether it is admitted, however clear and evident it may be. II. Not to demand, in axioms, any but things that are perfectly evident in themselves.”

Blaise Pascal: Thoughts, Letters and Minor Works: Part 48 Harvard Classics. Blaise Pascal and Charles W. Eliot. F.F.  Collier New York: 1910 pp. 413

“Then there’s the problem of “balance” – the idea that reporters must give roughly equal space to two different “sides” of a controversy. When applied to science, especially in politicized areas, this media norm becomes extremely problematic. Should journalists really grant equal time to the small band of scientists who deny the causal relationship between HIV and AIDS when the vast majority of researchers accept the connection between the two? Should they split column space between the few remaining global warming “skeptics” and the scientific experts who affirm the phenomenon’s human causation? Again, experienced science journalists will know best how to cover such stories and will be aware of the scientific community’s very justifiable abhorrence of unthinking “balance.””

Chris Mooney & Sheril Kirschenbaum: “Unpopular Science”. The Nation (August 17, 2009 ed.). (Our emphasis.)

We know from clinical observation that right-wing, conservative “faith” operatives are anti-science. And to what purpose? They are intolerant of the “evidence-based” pursuit of public policy. Who profits by this? They resist the admission and consideration of factual knowledge and critical analysis into our public conversations about how we are to conduct ourselves. The Faith Card.

We acknowledge that right-wing doctrine is anti-science. We predictably foreshorten this to “faith is anti-science.” Is faith per se anti-science? I have no idea. How could I, really? I don’t believe I am making claims based on faith. I guess your faiths are anti-science if you say they are. Faiths are specific, particular and not “per se.” There is no recognizable category of as-yet formed faiths for which we can apply logical operators like “anti-science.” Maybe we should discipline ourselves to make statements only about specific, articulable beliefs or “faiths.” Faith is a noun. Do you have faith? Do you have cheeses?

We allow another unthinking inversion (commutation), this time of the trope “faith is anti-science.” We inadvertently give birth to another unfortunate, bastard linguistic error: “science is anti-faith.” Allowing this illogical imposture into the right-wing play-book has invited all sorts of mental mayhem.

If we set aside uncertain arguments about scientific “methods,” the body of science is nothing more (or less) than the accumulation of sensibly agreeable observations about reality. The body of physical science isn’t anti-faith. The body of social science is clear:

It is overwhelmingly evident that organized faith does staggering harm. Not only because it opposes science in public policy.  Not only because it is instrumental in power and oppression. Organized religion produces wholesale injustice and violence.

Beliefs for which we cannot imagine any evidence are a very special, very particular class of claim. They differ fundamentally from observations of reality. We are tricked into mistaking that they merit recognition and equal footing with the reasoned, the rational, the scientific –with claims that are within the ambit of observable evidence and actual theories. They do not. We are fooled into giving them some kind of “legitimacy through association.” They do not have similar gravity, or moral weight, or intellectual standing.

Let’s tally the damage we have done to sensible discourse.

Science and the scientific are categorically maligned as inherently contradictory and self-disproving. This disdains and dismisses all rational, logical discourse, not to mention those zany philosophers, as ridiculous, naïve and stupidly self-contradictory. Reasoned dialogue is mangled and reduced to nonsensical rubble. We can dismiss science itself.

This kind of malicious dishonesty mocks intellectual and logical integrity. No wonder we are confused.

We are obliged to summarily reject right-wing claims to recourse to “logic” or “reason” or “evidence,” or “science,” or, for god’s sake, “truth. They gave up any such claims too long ago for us to brook that bullshit. A reasoned response is an undignified disservice to mental –and moral– integrity. If we analyze with this kind of care, we can rehabilitate for ourselves the proper usage of the word “theory” from those who would appropriate and contaminate it. We can reclaim for serious conversation the terms “proofs” and “proved.”

By all means. Take seriously all ideas that claim to truth, meaning, and mere usefulness. Examine them rationally and with reason. Subject them to skepticism, counter-evidence and to possible disproof. Feel free –intellectually free– to discredit them.

But dismiss, without evidence, apology or justification, that which is presented without evidence. (Provide citation.) Do not dignify as “controversy” the shrill assaults of bitter, acquisitive extremists who would discard what we know.

So many things are just… true. And so many things are just… uncontroversial. And so many things are just… preposterous. Give no credence to unfounded claims to controversy. The unfounded belief and the reasoned, supported and “evidence-based” argument do not have the same standing. Disregard refractory, schizoid and insane demands that you be “fair and balanced.”  As we have seen, they do more harm than immediately appears. Let’s not be insane.



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