In March 2018, a man named Mike Hughes climbed into a homemade, steam-powered rocket, and launched himself 700 metres above the Mojave Desert floor. Thankfully, he came back down in one piece, if a little sore.
Like most of us, Mike is entranced by the idea of going into space. Unlike most of us, he wants to do so (at horrendous risk to his life) because he believes the world is flat, and wants to see for himself. “Do I believe the Earth is shaped like a frisbee? I believe it is. Do I know for sure? No. That’s why I want to go up in space.”
Modern flat-earthers have been around for more than two centuries, but in the internet age two interesting shifts seem to have occurred. Firstly, Flat Earth belief has become more prominent, if still decidedly fringe. Becoming a flat-earther is the ultimate act of epistemic rebellion: what better way to declare yourself a free-thinking individualist than to deny a fact everyone else agrees on?
Secondly, the term ‘flat-earther’ itself has become a sort of shorthand for someone who believes something so outrageous that nobody is obliged to take their views seriously. A ‘flat-earther’ is not simply someone who believes something ridiculous; they’re someone whose views are so far beyond the pale we don’t need to listen to them at all.
Perhaps that’s why we never see flat-earthers interviewed on TV shows about space travel or geography for the sake of ‘balance’. I’m guessing flat-earthers themselves find this fact deeply unjust, if not downright sinister. (No doubt someone is writing a letter to New Philosopher right now to ask why we’re taking part in the Round Earth conspiracy). But the rest of us aren’t troubled by this exclusion.
On plenty of other topics, however, we get very uncomfortable indeed if the media doesn’t seek out comment from a range of voices. We want our news and our current affairs commentary to canvass all the relevant views instead of pushing a particular line. We want the media to be ‘balanced’. This seems to be true even of people who seek out media with a particular ideological bent: even Fox News used to sell itself with the slogan Fair and Balanced.
As a journalistic virtue, the benefit of balance is obvious. We look to the media not simply to tell us how things are, but to represent uncertainty fairly too. If all questions of fact and value had clear and unambiguous answers, the media would simply be a conduit for information. But that’s not the world we live in. Our epistemic limitations and the reality of moral and political disagreement means the media also has a role to play as a venue for controversies to play out. If there’s disagreement, we want to hear all sides of that disagreement so we can make up our own minds.
That demand is linked to a major shift that’s generally reckoned to have happened in the 18th century. We learned, so the story goes, to think for ourselves. Sapere aude, declared Immanuel Kant: “dare to know”, that is, to work things out for yourself, not simply to accept whatever the King or the Church tells you. Kant’s attitude finds expression in such unlikely places as Fox News’s updated slogan: We Report. You Decide.
Balance is, at heart, a sort of fairness, both to the participants in a controversy and to the viewer. It’s a virtue journalists take on board very early in their training. In the main, journalists want to present themselves as objective, neutral brokers rather than partisans for a particular position. (Fox was widely condemned for not living up to Fair and Balanced, but not for the ideal itself).
But balance-as-neutrality has serious limits. To see why, ask yourself why we don’t have flat-earthers on TV to provide ‘balance’ in stories about space travel. The answer might seem obvious: if flat earth belief is ridiculous (and it is), then we don’t need to treat it as if it might be true.
Balance always operates against a background of decisions, implicit or overt, about whose voices need to be considered and which claims are serious ones. Life is short and news programs are even shorter, and that means we need to cut a few corners. “Had we but world enough, and time”, to borrow a phrase from the 17th century poet Andrew Marvell, we could consider every viewpoint, every argument, even the very silly or very obnoxious ones. But we don’t have that luxury. There’s a notorious conspiracy theory, associated with the writer David Icke, that the British royal family are shape-shifting interdimensional reptilians. Yet it seems clear we don’t have to work a What if she’s a lizard? angle into every news item about the Queen.
So perhaps, surprisingly, ‘balance’ comes into play in a context of largely-settled consensus about which views don’t warrant airtime. It’s simply not possible to include every voice. Some views might also be left out because they are so hateful or harmful that we judge they have no place in civil discourse. In other cases, it would be outrageous not to give certain people the chance to speak, for instance where someone deserves a right of reply about allegations against them. But in between these extremes there’s an enormous amount left to the individual judgement of producers and presenters.
The problem is that very often the controversy in question is over whether there even is a controversy to begin with. Some people think the world is flat: does that mean the shape of the world is a controversial topic? If you think the mere fact of disagreement means there’s a controversy there, then pretty much any topic you care to mention will turn out to be controversial if you look hard enough. But in a more substantial sense, there’s no real controversy here at all. The scientific journals aren’t full of heated arguments over the shape of the planet. The university geography departments aren’t divided into warring camps of flattists and spherists. There is no serious flat-earth research program in the geology literature.
So far, so obvious. But think about certain other scientific ‘controversies’ where competing arguments do get media time, such as climate change, or the safety and efficacy of vaccination. On the one side you have the overwhelming weight of expert opinion; on the other side amateur, bad-faith pseudoscience. In the substantial sense there aren’t even ‘two sides’ here after all.
Yet that’s not what we see; we just see two talking heads, offering competing views. The very fact both ‘heads’ were invited to speak suggests someone, somewhere has decided they are worth listening to. In other words, the very format implicitly drags every viewpoint to the same level and treats them as serious candidates for being true. That’s fine, you might reply: sapere aude! Smart and savvy viewers will see the bad arguments or shoddy claims for what they are, right? Except there’s some evidence that precisely the opposite happens. The message that actually sticks with viewers is not “the bad or pseudoscientific arguments are nonsense”, but rather that “there’s a real controversy here”.
There’s a name for this levelling phenomenon: false balance. The naïve view of balance versus bias contains no room for ‘true’ versus ‘false’ balance. Introducing a truth-value means we are not simply talking about neutrality anymore – which, as we’ve seen, nobody can or should achieve fully anyway. False balance occurs when we let in views that haven’t earned their place, or treat non-credible views as deserving the same seat at the table.
To avoid false balance, the media needs to make important and context-sensitive discriminations about what is a credible voice and what isn’t. They need balance as a verb, rather than a noun. To balance is an act, one that requires ongoing effort and constant readjustment. The risk, after all, is falling – perhaps right off the edge of the world.