John Oliver - 2014

Fair and Balanced or Unhinged from Reality?

John Oliver - 2014
John Oliver

This post is NOT about Fox News or climate change, though both are referenced to explain something else.

John Oliver: Last Week Tonight

[dropcap]I[/dropcap] thought that the ending of Season 1, Episode 3, of John Oliver’s HBO series, “Last Week Tonight” was sheer brilliance. Not only was he funny (He’s always hysterical.), he made a profoundly important point. His point was directed specifically to one topic: climate change. I want to describe what he did and then extend the scope of his point significantly.

Apparently one in four Americans believe climate change is not real. John said that in every debate about climate change on television, the viewer is presented with only two people: Bill Nye, the Science Guy (espousing the reality of man-made climate change) and some other person (denying that climate change is real or is man-made).  In other words, climate change is a 50/50 proposition. (Actually, in my opinion, this presents the visual inference that only Bill Nye believes in climate change, and all of these other people you are seeing on TV don’t. It further stacks the odds.)

He then says we need a “statistically representative debate” about climate change. His show then descends into cleverly orchestrated chaos as 97 “scientists” join Bill Nye’s side of the debate on stage and 3 “scientists” protest the existence of climate change. In other words, in the scientific literature, it’s about 97 to 3 in the research insisting that climate change is real, is now, and is man-made. The debate is over. Yet, TV trots out 2 guests to debate something that has long ago been concluded and does so in a way that grotesquely misrepresents overwhelming, informed consensus.

This way, that wayMore than Climate Change

But John Oliver’s well-made point extends way beyond climate change. The media frequently present very complex issues as simple binary choices: Either this interviewee is correct and the other interviewee is wrong, or visa vera. Either/or. 50/50. Simple binary choices. Pick one, as if each argument is on equal footing. This is just an easy information user interface to quickly and succinctly present issues on TV. But it’s lazy!

Arguments about anything are rarely on equal footing for any number of reasons. And, life is almost always far more complex than simple black or white choices!

This speaks to a very clever strategy to persuade people to endorse the indefensible. Make this presentation style even worse by calling it: “Fair and Balanced.”  This type of information user interface is, innately in its very design, completely unfair and unbalanced to the weightier argument—whatever that argument might be.

The oil industry finances the work of a few scientists to gyn up a fake argument. They then have that argument presented to the American people in a 50/50 debate. The fake argument immediately gains a huge leap in fake credibility, as if the fake argument is on equal footing with the reasoned consensus of a preponderance of scientific inquiry when it is not at all. Unnecessary doubt is created.

Busy people are left to wonder. Confusion is opening the door to taking advantage of the innocent and trusting. A fake argument is given fake credibility.

The School Bus - Vintage Textbook
Source: Papergreat

Our Children

Extremists are masters of this technique. Maybe it has a name of which I am not aware.

I think of religious extremists creating fake experts about gay parenting, or if being gay is a choice or can be “cured,” or if the earth is really millions of years old, or if the founding fathers believed in the separation of church and state, or… They gyn up a few fake credentialing organizations and some fake accreditation organizations and parade them around as the real thing. Cloud what is real, what is known, what withstands the scrutiny of broadly accepted peer review. Create doubt in the unsuspecting or uninformed. Mislead them altogether when possible.

I think of religious extremists gaming the marriage equality debate: Maggie Gallagher, or Dan Brown, or Tony Perkins ranting and raving against another person as if the merits of being fair to other people or not being fair to them is a 50/50 debate.

But the extremists go deeper than just this type of unbalanced debate strategy and confusion mongering.

These extremists are actively harming children. They are creating entire fake curricula for schools that lack properly credentialed teachers.

The Christian textbook industry is pumping out science textbooks filled with anti-scientific nonsense as well as history textbooks that fabricate American history. Naturally, these textbooks are not being written by widely acclaimed, trusted scholars in their field. They are being written by underpaid minions to promote a very specific, highly defined religious agenda: not science and not history. They are actively creating a generation of illiterate children who, through no fault of their own, think they know and understand the world around them, but are deliberately indoctrinated to disbelieve what the majority of humanity accepts as reality.

This causes me grave concern. This has significant and deleterious ramifications.