Let’s say you were watching a programme on house building, but every time the builder spoke up about using concrete blocks, the camera panned afterwards to a person who believed that instead of concrete, Christmas tinsel should be a better building material.
Or, you were watching a motoring programme with a mechanic talking about putting oil in the engine to keep the parts moving. After he had spoken, the programme sought the views of a person who felt that Fanta Orange was a much better alternative than oil to lubricate the engine.
Imagine, in both cases, how the builder or the mechanic would feel about this. Imagine what they would think about the programme makers. “Short changed” would be putting it mildly.
With due consideration to the Christmas Tinselists and Fanta Orangeists out there, we might consider it completely mad for a programme to devote time to people who clearly were off the range as regards issues that are generally accepted as mainstream ideas. Not only that, but it would be seen by many as sowing confusion and distraction where no such thing was warranted.
The principle of balance is ingrained into most broadcasting organisations. To be fair to all sides, they will often invite people with different viewpoints to debate particular points. This is a good principle in the main. It minimises the chances that we are being excluded from hearing important contrary information when making your mind up about various issues. It also makes for good, entertaining TV and radio.
In the cases above, however, you can see that the principle of balance can be overextended, particularly when subjects are largely decided and incontrovertible. In many situations, therefore, the broadcaster is not required to create a “balanced” debate; they are perfectly entitled to represent the single accepted position and get on with it. This is the picture acknowledged by most experts in that field. It’s accepted because there is overwhelming support for it. Why create debate when there is none?
Take evolution for instance. There are people in this world who deny evolution, primarily for religious reasons. That’s their choice. It is a nonsense, however, to employ the principle of balance when discussing evolution, because unlike evolutionary scientists, creationists have no real evidence supporting their position. In the many decades since Darwin first published his ideas, creationists have utterly failed to provide reliable support for an alternative, while the scientific underpinning have multiplied in size. The scientific evidence is so overwhelming that it’s a complete nonsense to suggest that a debate even exists. Pitting a creationist against an evolutionary scientist – no matter how many people feel there is a debate to be had – is quite ridiculous. It only serves to elevate a faith based position to be seen as a plausible alternative to the scientific research – a position it does not deserve.
After so much debate and so much evidence, we are also entitled to question the motives of those who would continue – to this day – to promote creationism or intelligent design as credible alternatives on a par with evolutionary science. Since their positions have been refuted in so many ways and for such a long period of time, we can safely say that such people are no longer interested in an honest pursuit of the truth. Denial has a propaganda value. Thus, it’s not just false balance: anyone organising a debate between creationists and evolutionary scientists nowadays must accept that the creationists are not coming to the table with pure intentions, despite what they might say publicly.
Such is also the case with climate change. The vast majority of climate scientists are in agreement that a) CO2 and other greenhouse gasses are warming the planet, b) that intensive human activity is the major factor in this warming and that c) this issue needs to be tackled urgently. Deniers take issue with some or all of these statements, but their arguments have little scientific merit. Pitted against decades worth of evidence building and hypothesis testing, the denier community has come up short. They are losing and they know it. Having singularly failed to develop a plausible scientific alternative, they resort to sowing doubt and muddying the waters. It’s the Creationism vs Evolution debate all over again. Because it too has only got worse for deniers in the past years, we have to ask ourselves what the underlying motive for maintaining their stance might be.
It’s for these reasons that I don’t think it’s useful to be giving a platform to climate change deniers on broadcast media. Like Christmas Tinselists or Fanta Orangeists, they have no scientific argument to make and thus they are a distraction from the real issue. But more than this, just like creationists, I have a problem with their motives. When the evidence is so overwhelming, there has to be an underlying reason for maintaining their stance. An honest debate in such circumstances is impossible.