bothsides, bothsidesing, bothsidesism

You’re probably familiar with bothsidesism, the activity of which is bothsidesing, which is when you bothsides something. It’s a common activity in the news media. 

The idea is that as a journalist, you need to have regard for the truth, which means that you need to be objective, which means that you need to be unbiased, which means that you need to be balanced, which means that you need to present both sides of an issue. The result is an approach whereby for any issue, you strive to present two sides equally, which leads to this sort of thing:

In Coyote-Road Runner Dispute, Negative Attitudes on Both Sides

Jurassic Park Opening Marred by Violence from Both Dinosaurs and Humans

News magazine shows will eagerly invite guests to face off from both sides of a dispute, even if the dispute is about something that 98% of researchers in a field consider settled fact. Well, it beats taking a position – no risk of being wrong if you don’t say anything’s right!

I think you can guess what I think of bothsidesism. Indeed, anyone who uses the word is sure to have the same view. It’s a deprecatory term. The only dispute among those who use it is whether it should be open (both sidesism), hyphenated (both-sides-ism or both-sidesism), or closed (bothsidesism). But since the trend in English is for any new compound word over time to progress to closed form (e.g., from e-mail to email), and since I prefer the closed form, and since this is my blog, I’m not inviting arguments on it. You can handle it as you wish; I’m handling it as I wish. In the end (and probably sooner), my preference will most likely prevail.

(There are, by the way, no two sides as to whether these are words. They’re already in use as words by many people, and their meanings are established and not problematic. Conversions of this kind are normal in English. The presence or absence of the verb bothsides in a dictionary does not decide whether it’s a word any more than the presence or absence of a bird in a field guide decides whether the bird is real.)

Why do I dislike bothsidesism so much? Do I have something against responsible journalism? I do not, which is why I dislike bothsidesism so much. Let me go over my reasons.

It may not be representative.

Let’s say there are two parties running in an election, and one of them gets 10% of the vote, and the other gets 90% of the vote. It wouldn’t be reasonable to give each of them half the seats just because there are two of them, would it? (No, it would not. I know that parties can sometimes win a majority of seats with a minority of the vote, and that sometimes the party that gets the most votes does not win. I do not endorse such outcomes.)

Likewise, if you have an issue where 98% of those with some claim to authority in the field agree, but there are a few contrarians taking an opposing position (one that, surely by coincidence, may be useful to some people with a lot of power and money), it may seem like balance to invite one person to speak for the 98% and another to speak for the 2%. I don’t know why it may seem like balance, but I keep seeing it. Giving half the time to someone who speaks for only 2% (and who, therefore, probably has at best a 1 in 50 chance of being right) is not unbiased; it’s strongly biased in favour of the one who’s getting time well out of proportion to the voices they represent. It’s informational gerrymandering.

The sides may not be equally viable.

I don’t know why this needs to be pointed out, but apparently it does. I’m going to get into this in more detail further below, but let’s set it down here. There are too many debates that are still being had in some quarters (some of them greatly aided by “balanced” news coverage) where, frankly, one side is completely out to lunch and off the planet. 

The fact that some people believe outlandish things does not make them inlandish. And every time some crank makes an attention-getting claim, you don’t need to give them the air time to make it and beleaguer some decent sensible person responding to it. Yes, it’s true, some great scientific insights sounded like crankery at first, but the vast majority of things that sound like crankery are indeed crankery. The fact that you often have to be a bit unreasonable to make bold progress doesn’t mean that every unreasonable person is making bold progress. Most of them are just unpleasant people you should not encourage.

And just because the two sides of a dispute are saying negative things about each other doesn’t mean both sides are equally wrong or equally right. If one person shouts a racial epithet at another person, and the other person shouts a swearword back, you might say they have both used offensive language, but if you can’t tell the difference between the two, you have some learning to do. The coyote and the roadrunner may taunt each other, but the roadrunner isn’t trying to eat the coyote. The technical term here is “false equivalence.” There’s usually also some argumentum ad passionem going with it.

It may not be just yes and no.

Bothsidesism tends to present things in two-value debate format. But there are plenty of topics where it’s nowhere near as simple as that. To use a nonpolitical example, in the world of running there is a question of whether it’s better to do more intense training over shorter distances or more moderate training over longer distances. But in reality, few runners who are training for races do all of one and none of the other; most of them will do some kind of mix. And with each option, there’s also the question of how much distance and how much intensity. It’s not like a light switch. 

To move over to a food example: Do you prefer your steak rare or well done? Or, like many people, something in between? 

Or… do you not prefer steak at all?

There may be more than two sides.

We may be used to Pepsi versus Coke and McDonald’s versus Burger King, but given a choice, I’d rather have sushi and a glass of Japanese lager (or, if at lunch, green tea). In many issues that are bothsidesed, the effect is to shut down the real consideration of the issue. If you can limit attention to a simple binary, all the other possibilities don’t even get air time.

Sometimes this is done deliberately, to present a simple narrative with an implied correct side (so much for impartiality, but we knew that, didn’t we). A news magazine show may get a calm, authoritative expert and an obvious nutcase to debate an issue, for instance. It’s like what designers in corporate environments often do: present the choice that they prefer, along with another option that no sensible person would ever go with. But eventually everyone who does this learns how many decision-makers are not sensible.

Part of it is that presenting a choice legitimizes it. If someone says “What kind of sushi would you like – salmon or fugu?” and you don’t know that eating fugu brings a significant risk of death from neurotoxins, you might be motivated to try the one you haven’t had before. More to the point, I have more than once seen a political candidate known (by those who knew) to be an utter disaster choice defeat a competent candidate because most voters didn’t know what an awful mess the person was, and the news media gave the person equal time and didn’t mention the person’s record so as not to seem biased. (And once support started to grow because of this legitimization, the news had another reason to treat the person as legitimate…)

But you need to get all the ideas out there and let people judge, right? Sunlight is the best disinfectant! In the marketplace of ideas, the truth will win!

Ha. I don’t know why anyone who has seen people buy anything would think that the best choice always prevails in a free marketplace. Good marketing can sell a lot of bad rubbish, and people buy things for reasons unrelated to the actual function of what they’re buying. Just look at the kinds of cars and trucks some people buy – and what they actually use them for.

Also consider that harmful but addictive substances can sell very well. Think about the kinds of things people would sell if they weren’t prevented from it. Before government food inspection, food poisoning was a lot more common. And have you seen the kinds of “medicines” that were being sold a century and a half ago? Any safe marketplace is regulated.

However, all of those analogies count for even less than you might think, because…

Facts are not consumer goods.

You may have had the experience of telling someone something that you know to be true, only to get the reply “I’m not buying it.” Well, my friends, facts are not for sale. It doesn’t matter if you’re “not buying” the idea of gravity; if you step off a balcony it will act on you free of charge. Telling tourists in the Rocky Mountains that bears are dangerous wild animals is not like advertising a restaurant, and you don’t need signs about how bears are cuddly and deserving of food placed “for balance” next to the ones telling you that they can kill you.

It is true that some of the things that get bothsidesed are not settled fact or even close. They can be complex matters with difficult-to-predict outcomes. But they are almost never like, say, buying toasters, where I buy the one I want, you buy the one you want, and we live with our own choices. Subjects of bothsidesing are generally matters of public policy, and the choice will affect all of us – and, very importantly, will affect people who didn’t want the choice they got stuck with. Imagine if you had to buy whichever toaster most people wanted to buy that day. Suddenly instead of a $30 one that’s basic but sturdy and works predictably, you’re having to buy a stylish $400 one that burns your toast half the time and underdoes it the other half – and you can’t take it back and you can’t get another one for several years. Oh – you were actually in the store to buy a vacuum cleaner? Too bad. Enjoy your toaster.

And even if you don’t have to “buy” a bad idea – even if it doesn’t win the election, say – that doesn’t mean it won’t affect you. The secondhand smoke of someone else’s mental tire fire can still make it hard for you to breathe. Giving air time to vicious groups can help them recruit and can encourage others to act viciously. (I say a lot more about the vicious effects of giving “equal time” to vicious positions in my article on censorcenser, and censure.)

What? You don’t want to appear biased on a matter that is clearly controversial? You’re afraid of compromising your objectivity? Well…

Objectivity has a pro-truth bias.

This, too, shouldn’t have to be said, but some people don’t seem to know it. In the world, there are some things that reliably correspond with observable reality, and it’s senseless to bothsides them. For example, if you hold an egg at arm’s length above a tile floor and let go of it, it will almost certainly fall to the floor and break messily; no debate is required. For another example, if you implement a public health measure that has repeatedly been shown to reduce the number of people who get sick or die of some identifiable cause – for example, appropriate testing for the public water supply – you can count on fewer people getting sick and dying. If you want to report the truth as objectively as possible, you need to say this, because it’s what’s consistent with objective reality. Balance doesn’t mean not tilting towards the preponderance of evidence; that’s putting your thumb on the scale, biasing in favour of the side that’s not supported by observed reality. 

But don’t think you can just dump facts on people and consider your job done. It’s a fact that grizzly bears like to eat berries. It’s a fact that brown bears don’t eat people. It’s a fact that black bears avoid people when they can. It’s a fact that bears have fur that feels nice if you run your hand on it. But the reality is, if you try to feed some berries to a grizzly so you can pet it, you’re going to have a very bad day. 

It’s true that you can’t ever present absolutely all the facts. I noticed, when I was studying linguistics, that about half of each course was just unlearning oversimplifications I had learned in a previous course. The rest of life is like that, too: learning is a gradual process of building understanding. At one time you learn 2 + 2 = 4; later, you learn that sometimes when you see 2 it’s really 2.4 rounded down, and sometimes when you see 5 it’s really 4.8 rounded up, so 2 + 2 = 5 for large values of 2 and small values of 5. But when you are presenting information, if your job is to help people understand reality, your job is to present facts in such a way, and with sufficient context, that the people you are presenting them to will be most likely to understand the truth as reliably as they can.

There’s no guarantee they’ll get it, to be sure. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. But you also shouldn’t present a horse one bucket of water and one bucket of poison just to be “unbiased” so the horse can “consider all the options.” Not even if the manufacturers of horse poison are buying ads on your channel.

6 responses to “bothsides, bothsidesing, bothsidesism

  1. That was one of my favourite reads in months!

  2. The power of the old saw “There are two sides to every story” is remarkable. People brandish it to shut down, or open, arguments all the time. I suppose it’s easier to resort to than doing some not-too-hard thinking, but what intrigues me is that not just the idea but the particular formulation is so persistent. It must have some kind of rhetorical or psychological appeal to fly past scrutiny so reliably, and to provide such an appealing resort. It’s as though the entire raft of fallacious thinking you’ve just described floats on not just a single error, but that particular colloquial expression.

  3. Good phrase, “informational gerrymandering.”

  4. The way the information unfolds is like a story building up. I get quite animated while reading your articles and end up reading aloud more than once. This is my go-to blog and makes me feel like I can still learn to think and converse intelligently about topics generally for the simple reason that I cannot force myself to learn unless I enjoy the exercise. Your blog is alive with inspiring energy. Thank you!

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