Say an author in our great country, the US of A, writes a book about the “fact” that the color “green” doesn’t exist. Not only doesn’t it exist as a color in the spectrum of visible light, he insists, all the things that we assume are green, like grass, or frogs, simply don’t exist at all. The book is a complete denial of everything and anything “green”. The author presents a lot of data from selected sources, wraps it all in tons of anecdotes, writes in a breezy, chatty manner. It’s an entertaining read and some folk reading it take it as humor. But there are some readers who take it seriously.
Sales of the book start taking off, it starts appearing on best-seller lists, which the serious “non-greenians” point to as further validating their viewpoint. “See,” they say, “there’s been a supression of this knowledge for years. People are hungry for the truth about this so-called ‘color’, ‘green’.”
Because the non-greenians are becoming more popular, the media, always alert for entertaining controversies, takes notice. Several of the cable news channels book the author on their shows. Because this this ostensibly a science-related issue, they don’t book the author on the fluff talk shows, and they don’t simply interview him. No, see, there’s a dispute here over the existence of the color green; so they need to be balanced. They need to give the pro-green folks equal time. After all, the journalists don’t want to appear to be biased, and they don’t want to risk the ire of the “non-greenians”. Or, rather, they want to fan the ire of the non-greenians just enough to get them to watch. After that, they don’t care.
And, in fact, during his appearances, the author of the book points out that “non-greenian” is a derrogatory term. The people prefer to call themselves “truthians”, and what they practice is “truthful physics”. They don’t deny that others may claim there is this thing they call “green” but it simply isn’t so. The evidence is against them. The folks that are disputing his truthful physics haven’t even read his book! And, besides, all he’s after is a honest debate on the merits of his research. What could be more scientific than that? His critics attack him and ignore all the research he’s put into his study.
And so his critics are forced into defending themselves as being “open-minded” and of following proper scientific method, and generally presenting their “evidence” of something that, up until this author trotted out his “facts”, everyone simply assumed. Nobody questioned the existence of the color green, and if someone had raised that thought in a friendly discussion, most would have laughed and not given it any further thought. But because someone has written a book, and others have seen fit to publish the book, and the idea that others have purchased the book, and even others behind the scenes at major national news organizations have seen fit to not only give the author a public forum for his views but to have others on to “debate” him… Well, it seems impossible that all this would have happened if there wasn’t at least some merit to his idea, right?
It doesn’t matter who you put up against the “truth physicist” — an artist, a physicist, a cognitive psychologist, Hell, a child or an average Joe off the street. No one is able to argue against someone who calmly, reasonably, backed by public opinion and the power of authority granted by having passed through the various media filters in the publishing and television industries.
And if anyone dares to suggest that the idea is simply outrageous, that there’s no merit to the idea, that it doesn’t even bear repeating, well, that person can easily be accused of being closed-minded, that everyone is entitled to an opinion. The critic can easily be tarred with the ad hominem brush and dismissed.
It seems that there is no frame, no argument, that can counter an outrageous idea that’s presented with all the trappings of reasonable discussion. And the problem is that it is so very easy to give any idea those trappings. Our national media has become quite comfortable with the idea of false balance; get one person for, one person against, and let them have at each other. May the best idea win. Takes all the heat off the “journalists” — after all, they’re just giving people what they want. Let the people decide. It’s a compelling idea; consider it reality by consensus, arrived at via a process of elevation of selected concepts above the background noise.
Never mind that not all ideas are equal. Never mind that you can’t “balance” a truth with a lie. Never mind that the ones who complain the loudest about not getting a fair hearing are the ones who most abuse the system.
Something’s terribly wrong and not only will most people not acknowledge it, but, admit it:
at some point in reading this post you actually considered, even if for a moment, even if fleetingly, even if as a fancy, the idea that green doesn’t exist.
Didn’t you? Maybe not all of you but I’ll bet there were more than a few.
Not all ideas have merit. You can’t balance a true statement with a lie. Rational thinking is hard but it’s very much worth it.