February 12, 2020

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Joel Nodelman

False Balance in Climate Argument – Sometimes Debating 2-Sides of an Issue is a Waste of Time

About the author

Joel is an engineer and risk management specialist with over forty years of professional practice. He is committed to helping his clients achieve climate resiliency and sustainability.

Today, I want to share some thoughts about false balance in climate argument, also known as false equivalence. This is the belief that there are two equal sides to every issue. Both sides are valid and must be given an equal voice. While this may be true when things are a matter of opinion, it is not always the case. We need to understand the difference. 

We see this in climate argument when opinion is treated the same as scientific evidence. This is just wrong.

Good journalists must offer balanced reporting. So, in climate argument they have to give equal time to the sceptic and the expert. In most cases the sceptic is running on gut feeling. Meanwhile, the expert has spent years of study and work to fully understand the issue. They offer facts that have stood up to intense scrutiny by qualified specialists. This is the gold standard in factual argument.

False Balance in Climate Argument is Dangerous

The implications of false balance in climate argument are far-reaching and very dangerous. By creating the impression that the science is still in question, all we do is argue. We ignore the very real threat. Instead, we focus our energy on a highly riveting political dogfight. We are fiddling while Rome burns!

The Myth of the Lonely Expert in Climate Argument

So today I want to consider one of the most common arguments offered to support false balance. The idea that it only takes one scientist to make a new discovery that upsets everything we know.

Indeed, this has happened. But, when one lonely voice upset the apple cart, they offered real proof. The scientific community studied the data and finally accepted the discovery. This is peer review!

To date, in climate work, the 3% of sceptics could not give any real evidence for their case, despite all the noise to the contrary. In the process, they have made actual math errors, cherry picked data, or used a flawed peer review - only checking their work with folks that agree with their findings in the first place.

Facts about Galileo

One example people often cite when pushing to give equal airtime to the contrary voice is the case of Galileo. They push the idea that Galileo was all alone, and against all odds insisted that the sun is the centre of the solar system. As the myth goes, all the other scientists passionately opposed him, and were finally proven wrong. 

Silly old scientists! 

Those elitists! 

Scientific consensus is a meaningless! 

What do scientists really know, anyway! 

After all, the Ivory Tower isn’t the real world!

I have heard this so often; I felt compelled to do a bit of research on Galileo. The historical record doesn’t support the myth. In fact, most of the scientific community of the day agreed with Galileo. The fierce opposition came from the Church who believed that his idea was heresy. Back in the 1600s being charged with heresy meant inquisition, torture, and burning at the stake.

So, Galileo's scientific pals begged him to be careful, and where themselves mute out of fear of the inquisition. Early in his conflict with the Church, Galileo agreed to not publish any scientific work on his “theory”. But he found a loophole and wrote a story about it instead. Unfortunately, the story mocked the Pope, who was furious. In the end, Galileo faced the inquisition and was put under house arrest for the rest of his life. 

It's Really About Speaking Truth to Power

None of this makes the case for the lonely voice, facing fierce opposition from his peers, who is finally proven right. As the sceptics would have it, the primary reason they should have equal airtime. Instead, it is a story of a stubborn cuss speaking truth to power. Ironically, this is more like Greta Thunberg than a climate sceptic. 

False Balance and Climate Grief Bargaining

The demand for false balance is a symptom of climate grief bargaining.

Putting aside the fact that trolls often use false balance as a tactic, the average person talking about balance in climate argument is just trying to understand a very complex issue. We need to listen patiently. We need to share our common concerns, our fears for our livelihoods, for our families, and for the future. Once we find common ground, we can work together on real solutions. Perhaps at that point, we can have a discussion about false balance, peer review, and the merits of rigorous scientific process. But for the most part, that isn't really the issue.

What we really need to focus on is working together to fix the problem.

Let's Chat about False Balance in Climate Argument

I'd love to hear your thoughts about false balance in climate argument. Join the conversation by commenting below.
Here are a few questions to stimulate your commenting juices.

  • When is the last time you saw false balance used in a discussion about climate? 
  • Did you recognize the tactic right away, or did it take a while for it to dawn on you? 
  • What do you recommend to folks that are challenged to give equal time to a climate sceptic?

It seems that I have been discussing climate tactics for a while now. Here is a link to one of my blogs from last year, when I first talked about false balance in climate argument. Once you start to see these things, it is hard to ignore them. 

If you wish to contact us directly, feel free to use our handy contact form.


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