All things being equal, some things aren’t

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Watching the final hours before Tuesday’s government shut-down in the United States has really driven home to me the concept of false equivalence.

What is false equivalence? In a nutshell, it’s the process of creating the illusion of a debate where there is none.

In other words, the situation in Washington is not about politicians on all sides squabbling like children or refusing to compromise. It’s about one faction of misguided Republicans willing to bring the country to its knees for the sake of an ideological myth.

More and more, false equivalence is a problem in journalism, where reporters or interviewers feel it is incumbent on them to get “both sides” of a story.

In many cases, it makes sense. A company and a union have different perspectives on labour unrest, and there’s often merit in both.

More disturbing, however, is the notion that scientific findings can be properly analyzed in the media by arbitrarily juxtaposing competing theories.

Scientists debate — constantly. It is the essence of science to be questioning and analyzing research. It’s called peer review.

What appears on your television screen, however, does not always represent legitimate debate.

Imagine interviewing a NASA scientist about the geological makeup of the moon, and then turning the microphone to a chap named Bob who insists the moon is made of blue cheese. That’s almost how absurd some “debates” can get.

It’s not apples and apples

In recent years, the media has unwittingly (and even deliberately) propagated false equivalence on a variety of fronts, everything from climatology and evolution to vaccination and alternative medicine. It is difficult sometimes for even the most discerning consumer to know when they are being duped.

Occasionally, opposing sides become so deeply entrenched that objective investigation becomes nigh on impossible.

‘Wheat Belly’ furor

A couple of weeks ago, Telegram columnist Amanda Burton wrote about the pros and cons of eating grains, and suggested the claims of “Wheat Belly” author William Davis should be taken (figuratively) with a grain of salt. The online version was referenced with a link on Davis’s website, and was instantly inundated with angry, insulting comments from zealous anti-wheat fans.

There is probably … ahem … a grain of truth in Davis’s theory. Bread and grains, like most starches, tend to be fatty in large amounts, and many people fall prey to grain-specific illnesses such as celiac disease and diverticulosis.

But Davis’s shrill warnings to shun wheat altogether are based

on scant scientific evidence. Most of the complications supposedly cured through wheat abstinence can be explained by the predictable weight loss. And some of the research cited in the author’s footnotes doesn’t even match his conclusions.

Typically, those cornered by lack of evidence will cling to conspiracy theories. Anyone who questions “Wheat Belly” must be a shill for the wheat industry. Anyone who questions alternative remedies must be working for Big Pharma, and so on.

Ironically, the few times such deliberate collusion has been proven, it’s usually on the side of the false equivalents — climate change denial and the tobacco industry, to name just two.

James Fallows, longtime contributor to The Atlantic magazine, has also grown tired of false equivalence. And when it comes to the current crisis in Washington, he’s pretty tough on the media.

“As a matter of journalism,” he wrote this week, “any story that presents the disagreements as a ‘standoff,’ a ‘showdown,’ a ‘failure of leadership,’ a sign of ‘partisan gridlock,’ or any of the other usual terms for political disagreement, represents a failure of journalism and an inability to see or describe what is going on.”

A harsh assessment, but so often true.

Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s commentary editor.

Email: pjackson@thetelegram.com. Twitter: @pjackson_NL

Organizations: NASA, Big Pharma, Atlantic magazine

Geographic location: Washington, United States

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  • Colin Burke
    October 03, 2013 - 08:31

    I was a bit disappointed with this column; I ws expecting to see the columnist expound his reasons for deeming the situation in Washington an example of false equivalence, but so far as that was concerned the column seemed to turn out to be an instance of what he was criticizing.