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 that 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 a large difference in 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 biases. 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 newspapers.
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.