Thursday, 25 April 2013

Two Sides to Every Argument - the MMR Fallacy

In many respects, I blame the BBC for the measles outbreaks in Swansea. Or, if not the BBC, then a philosophy which that august body stands for. A philosophy that seems to break down into these four principles:

1. In the interests of balance and "fairness", there should be two sides to every argument.

2. In the interests of simplicity, there should be only two sides to every argument.

3. In the interests of entertainment, the two sides to every argument should be on the extreme opposite edges of the argument.

4. Science/Theology/Politics/Ethics is too hard for our audience, and for many of our reporters, so let's keep it simple.

These four principles lead to a maverick doom-spreading, money-raking scare-monger getting as much attention as all the sober scientists who oppose him. And then, often, doubly downgrade the sensible viewpoint by getting an extremist to present it. Or a "Christian" view on (normally) same-sex relationships being presented by "Christian" voice, or by somebody who thinks homosexuality should stay in theological colleges, where it belongs.

In this way, all discussions can be reduced to simple binary propositions, where equal representation gives the impression of equal validity.*

So I have some proposals here for future debates on the Beeb. Some have one rational point of view, some none. I offer them freely, for what they're worth. I won't even ask for royalties. 

"How should we deal with bovine TB? - We've got an expert in the epidemiology of TB in rural environments, and a bloke from the National Rifle Association with a pathological hatred of black-and-white mammals, who's got a brand new bazooka and an urge to tour England."

"Richard III - a good man or a bad king? A prominent Tudor historian debates with a woman who claims to be the reincarnation of Edward V."

"Scrap metal thefts in Southern England - the Deputy Chief Council of Thames Valley Police discusses the problem with a man who blames a race of steel-eating alien cuttle-fish. Who may have a point..."

"The Moon Landings - someone who thinks the Moon is a goddess debates with a bloke whose mate Syd says they were faked in a studio in New Mexico."

"How best to revitalise British democracy? A member of the Electoral Reform society takes on Simon de Montfort."

"Where now for Same-sex marriage in the Church?  The Bishop of Buckingham meets a man from the Westboro Baptists."

"Quantitative Easing - We ask the Deputy Governor of the Bank of England whether a woman who just walked the window, and thinks all money is evil because it has pictures on it, has a point."

"And now we discuss the Luis Suarez affair. Mac the Manc, the Stretford End Scouse-hater, argues for the death penalty. While a man from a previously unreached tribe in Papua New Guinea argues that Suarez risked food poisoning by eating uncooked Chelsea player."

"Turning to immigration. A Home Office spokesman tells us the number of Bulgarians coming to this company will be quite low, while someone's Nan argues that Enoch was right and we should send them all home. All of them. Including those bloody Normans."

"Was Jesus married? The Archbishop of Canterbury says we can't really be sure, while a bloke called Eric who read something on the Internet says he's a direct descendant."

*  The other side effect is that they encourage a "Columbus Fallacy".  This states that "They all laughed at Christopher Columbus, when he said the world was round. He was right, so anybody that comes up with some stupid idea may well be right." 

The problem with this Fallacy is that (a) They didn't laugh at him. Ferdinand and Isabella agreed to be his patrons. (b) The fool didn't even find the East Indies. (c) Science is naturally sceptical. It is right to challenge new theories - that's how science works. If you come up with a theory, it's your job to prove it. Just because it's a theory doesn't mean it's right. (d) We only hear about the right theories that people challenged.

1 comment :

  1. Brilliant, Eileen. Did the press in the US learn from the BBC, or was it the other way around? Either way, it drives me mad.

    Please let me know when the debate between the pastor of Westboro Baptist and the bishop of Buckingham will take place. Surely a must-see, or must-hear, or something.


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