November 22, 2008

Indifference to the truth is worse than lying: BSL and the curse of false equivalencies

The truth is not "somewhere in the middle."

Here is the truth about breed-specific legislation, from veterinary animal behaviorist Dr. Karen Overall: "Breed specific laws are not based in science. [Laws] banning breeds will not make you safer, and the illusion that they will do so is dangerous to humans and unfair to dogs."

The facts back her up. So why are various city councils so determined to ignore the science? Because it's easier to imagine that the truth is somewhere in the middle. It requires less courage and a lot less work. Russell Baker — quoted by the late, great Molly Ivins back in 1987, so help me, and things haven't gotten better — explains how "balance" works. Boldface is mine:
In the classic example, a refugee from Nazi Germany who appears on television saying monstrous things are happening in his homeland must be followed by a Nazi spokesman saying Adolf Hitler is the greatest boon to humanity since pasteurized milk. Real objectivity would require not only hard work by news people to determine which report was accurate, but also a willingness to put up with the abuse certain to follow publication of an objectively formed judgment. To escape the hard work or the abuse, if one man says Hitler is an ogre, we instantly give you another to say Hitler is a prince. A man says the rockets won't work? We give you another who says they will.

The public may not learn much about these fairly sensitive matters, but neither does it get another excuse to denounce the media for unfairness and lack of objectivity. In brief, society is teeming with people who become furious if told what the score is.
And here is Ivins herself [both quotes from her book Who Let the Dogs In?]:
The American press has always had a tendency to assume that the truth must lie exactly halfway between any two opposing points of view. Thus, if the press presents the man who says Hitler is an ogre and the man who says Hitler is a prince, it believes it has done the full measure of its journalistic duty.

This tendency has been aggravated in recent years by a noticeable trend to substitute people who speak from a right-wing ideological perspective for those who know something about a given subject. Thus, we see, night after night, on MacNeil/Lehrer or Nightline, people who don't know jack about Iran or Nicaragua or arms control, but who are ready to tear up the pea patch in defense of the proposition that Ronald Reagan is a Great Leader beset by comsymps. They have nothing to offer in the way of facts or insight; they are presented as a way of keeping the networks from being charged with bias by people who are replete with bias and resistant to fact. The justification for putting them on the air is that "they represent a point of view."

The odd thing about these television discussions designed to "get all sides of the issue" is that they do not feature a spectrum of people with different views on reality: Rather, they frequently give us a face-off between those who see reality and those who have missed it entirely. In the name of objectivity, we are getting fantasyland.
Now imagine a city council meeting, which shouldn't be too much of a leap. Members of the city council are 1) debating whether to ban certain dogs based not on their behavior or temperament but on their physical appearance, and 2) turning their backs on the concerns of law-abiding citizens whose good dogs have never harmed or threatened to harm anyone.

There are two opposing points of view.
  • Strongly opposed to breed bans are the real experts at the CDC; the AVMA; the authors of A Community Approach to Dog Bite Prevention; and virtually every competent dog-trainer, veterinary animal behaviorist and humane organization in North America.

  • In favor of breed banning: someone who quotes an odd "study" lacking citations and footnotes and filled with misspellings, misstatements and some of the nuttiest dog behavior analysis since Thurber's mother.

And the city council, if it is sufficiently replete with bias and resistant to fact [not all of them are, thank God], will pat itself on the back for its "balance" and cast its deciding vote in favor of those who have missed reality entirely.

"We create our own reality," as the man said. The truth is somewhere in the middle! So we ignore science, we fill law-abiding citizens with anguish, and when we feel like it, we confiscate and kill their good dogs.


Those who like to keep their bullshit detectors honed might want to check out the links in the Vagabond Scholar's posts on Faulty Argument Patterns and False Equivalencies. H/T to Batocchio for the Molly Ivins lead.

[Universal B.S. Detector Watch from Gizmodo.]


Anonymous said...

Its called 'moving the middle'. Most of us instinctually see a compromise in the middle of two sides of an argument as fair - but that's not necessarily how it works. As Rod and Patti Strand wrote in "Hijacking the Humane Movement":

"This establishes a playing field that assumes that two extremes are opposing one another, when in fact, the mainstream is already a midpoint consensus of public or professional opinion. The effect of being able to characterize the center as the other end of the teeter totter moves the entire issue into the extremists' territory. Hence, any movement that takes place is from the real mainstream center towards the extremist position. The mainstream, under these circumstances, has only the options of standing pat or allowing concessions. There is no opportunity to move further away from radical demands."

Anonymous said...

This is interesting but dangerous at the same time. I happen to agree that pit bulls are great dogs, I have a lot of experience working with dogs and I work with dog packs every day. But, the notion that there is no middle and that there should be no discourse at times is dangerous, very dangerous when considering the press. I am an avid opponent of BSL and have worked in a lot of cities to oppose it and help to come to a better end. But the idea that sometimes people "just have to be told what the score is" is exactly the problem. It is intellectual elitism and it is dangerous. These papers and editors think they know what the score is about pit bulls and they are telling it. And rather than having that balanced discussion, city councils are listening. The same fear mongering is used time and again in media and society to trounce public discussion and discourse to the detriment of the issues at hand. The camp is divided into "believers" and "non-believers," passions are raised and it takes on a near religious fervor. I personally welcome challenges and discussion because I know I have the facts. I log more "dog hours" in a year than most people would in two lifetimes, but I will always listen to the other side because that is the only way to address their concerns and to show them how wrong they are. What can I say? I'm a pragmatist. I have no doubts that I am right in the end, but when you hold a minority position (such as not having a completely unreasonable fear of pit bulls) the real problem is that we can't even have that discussion. I would love it if reasonable people were featured on the news to balance out every single story about pit bulls, then maybe we could start to have that discussion. The trouble is most people who hold a belief that "people should just be told what the score is" don't really know what's best, they THINK they know what's best. As pit bull owners I think we should be particularly sensitive to "being told what the score is," I know for me and my family people who think they know what's best have sure made my life difficult. Having that discussion and letting there be a middle is the only way to legitimately use the science and the facts to move the discussion one way or the other. But just "telling someone the score" is no better than what is being done to us right now. We have been "told the score" and we aren't digging it very much because its not working in our favor right now. Telling people the score and denying that there is even a discussion to be had is the equivalent to a modern day book burning. I say bring on the heretic texts, I am confident in my truth.