False equivalence and false balance – logical fallacies

This article will focus on the informal logical fallacy of false equivalence, although it will also discuss the related type of media bias called false balance. Sometimes they are used interchangeably, although false balance has a very specific application to news media. In a sense, false balance is a discrete subset of false equivalence – RationalWiki combines both concepts as they are so closely related.

Description of false equivalence

False equivalence is a logical fallacy where there appears to be a logical equivalence (usually in quantity and quality of evidence) between two opposing arguments, but when in fact there is one side has substantially higher quality and quantity of evidence. However, there is no equivalence between the two sides of a “debate” when one is supported by evidence, and the other side has no evidence, or evidence of low quality.

The logical fallacy not only inflates evidence to support a false assertion but also depreciates the evidence on the other side, both in an attempt to make it appear that the arguments are roughly equivalent. In other words, in false equivalence, someone will state that the opposing arguments have a passing similarity in support, when, on close examination, there is large difference between the quality of evidence.

Anecdotes are often used by those who push pseudoscience because they are so compelling and emotional. However, anecdotes are not considered high quality evidence, because they tend to suffer from a whole raft of bias. They also lack scientific and statistical analyses which are hallmarks of scientific evidence. To the pseudoscience community, anecdotes are peer-reviewed, published data.

Example of false equivalence

For example, in the “debate” (it’s not a debate) about vaccines and autism, one side has a large amount of evidence published in substantial peer-reviewed journals which form the basis of a scientific consensus about vaccines. The anti-vaccine side relies on anecdotes, retracted articles, and pseudoscience. The anti-vaccine side denigrates the scientific consensus about vaccines and autism without evidence, while attempting to frame the discussion that their pseudoscience about vaccines and autism is scientifically robust. It isn’t.

Description of false balance

As mentioned above, false balance is a form of false equivalence with a very specific application. Journalists use false balance when comparing two sides of a story (especially in science) by making it appear that both sides of the “debate” have equivalent authority and evidence supporting it.

Although journalists resort to false balance in many subjects, politics being one of the more egregious forms, their failure in presenting science is probably the worst. Inevitably, if there is a controversial scientific subject (not to scientists, just to the lay public), they will create a fake debate by bringing one qualified scientist with another false authority scientist, then give them 30 seconds to present their points.

You might think there is a debate on this scientific topic, when, in fact, the scientific consensus is solidly opposed to the false authority, based on the quality and quantity of evidence.

Scientific journalism has failed many times by presenting this false balance, even in respected news papers.

Example of false balance

Fox News presents a debate between one scientist who has overwhelming evidence supporting human caused climate change, and another false authority scientist who thinks that the data is all manufactured and there is no evidence. Then Fox News states that the debate is unsettled, relying on false balance, when the evidence supporting climate change is both high quality and high quantity.

27 Replies to “False equivalence and false balance – logical fallacies”

  1. Bad example for false equivalence there. The burden of proof for climate change is on the people seeking to prove it. Pointing out the skeptic is a “non-scientist” is an appeal to authority. It doesn’t matter who is trying to prove or reject a proof, it is the evidence or lack thereof that makes the decision.
    There are a lot of scientists who get more support and funding via government by supporting the climate change hypothesis, and the American government (for example) responds by saying we need to control people’s freedoms more. This is not a debate about the environment at all or we would be rejecting violence- literal destruction of humans and the environment- even when the violence is enacted by government. The government is destroying us in the name of protecting us, under the guise of “environment”. What about the post office desperately trying to maintain its existence, circulating spam mail and general garbage nobody wants or needs. Waste of paper and an entire office of workers, and a waste of money.

    Money is a wild card for resources, once you understand money=resources then you will see that economy and environment support each other. Any time someone demands restricting economic freedom in the name of environment is walking one direction while facing the opposite. Restricting economic freedom restricts one’s ability to support the environment. And a restriction is usually enforced by the violent hand of the government, pure environmental destruction. Violence always achieves the opposite of the intended goal.

    1. So, you have no peer-reviewed evidence in support of your scientific denial. And False Balance has nothing to do with burden of proof, it’s someone thinking that 5 scientists who lie about climate change outweighs the 100,000 that have published real results in real journals.

      Youtube videos are NOT evidence. Try using a couple of brain cells and provide us with something written by real scientists published in real journals. Until then, you’ve got nothing.

      And by the way, if it were about the burden of proof–anthropogenic climate change is a FACT. Your denialism is not.

      1. You didn’t share any information about climate change nor did you respond to any of the points I made. I didn’t have to share information or that youtube link with you. It’s another perspective, and guess what, it’s a reading of a skeptical scientist’s paper- it’s just in a more modern format.

        Assertions made without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. Scientists are only human but you are treating them like the laws of nature (which change if our observations are wrong), and the debate on climate change is all over the place. Many scientists that you and others claim supports climate change don’t support it at all, and have been very vocal about this, but completely ignored and unheard by many. So really, share your sources or you have no argument.

        By limiting to “peer-reviewed” you are making it look like you care about the evidence while you ignore the arguments I made. Remember, I don’t have to make these arguments. If climate change is real and you actually want to reach people, then you will address the violence and wastefulness being enacted in the name of climate change. People will not change their ways nor take you seriously if you ignore them and their concerns.

    2. “Pointing out the skeptic is a “non-scientist” is an appeal to authority. ”

      It isn’t a fallacious appeal to authority because the scientists are actual experts on the subject.

      1. They are experts. As such they are financially dependent upon keeping the climate in the news as a serious threat that something can be done about.

        1. You could make that claim about any kind of expert. The problem with that is, the data is available for all to see, and the number of actual scientists involved in this would be massive; a huge global conspiracy of scientists just to keep the regular income coming in.

          Guess who are financially dependent on trying to give the impression that climate change isn’t a threat/cannot be tackled? Fossil fuel companies…who have rather more money at stake.

            1. “I have no connection with any big energy corporation, except as a customer.”

              I never said you were. I am referring to those who fund the push against the science.

              “I really hate to attack anybody’s religion, but when you and the climate stability-range deniers want my tax money, I must demure. By the way, been to the movies lately?

              http://www.climatedepot.com/20…”

              Data isn’t a religion. I also didn’t say anything about tax money.
              There is overwhelming consensus among the experts. Disagree? Are you an expert in the field? Then present your findings.

            2. Made up data is propaganda intended to sell the religion of global warming. The charge of fudged data, faked data, is available in numerous places. Try the Watts Up site. [Of course Art won’t. That would be a mortal sin in this religion.]

            3. I’m aware of the site, I’ve seen it before.

              Conflating the unsubstantiated claims of religion with climate change is dishonest. There is empirical data that is available for all to examine, and there is overwhelming consensus among the experts. Science doesn’t suddenly drop the ball when it comes to one particular field.

              You didn’t address my comment.

              There is overwhelming consensus among the experts. Disagree? Are you an expert in the field? Then present your findings.

            4. When data is changed to support a theory instead of a theory being based on observed data, that isn’t science. That is pseudo science.

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