Painful Truth: False dilemmas, golden meanies

I know this is going to shock you to the core, but comedian/actor Rob Schneider said something stupid the other day.

I know, we expected more from the star of Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo.

It turns out that like many celebrity non-doctors, he’s paranoid about vaccinations. During a Twitter rant recently, he complained that doctors “won’t tell you both sides” in the debate about vaccines.

There are sort of two sides in the vaccine “debate.” On one side is decades of medical expertise and scientific research, and on the other is a badly discredited researcher, a lot of scam artists, and Jenny McCarthy. (Anti-vaccine nutters, please send your angry and poorly-punctuated letters care of “Editor.”)

The problem with non-debates like this is that they tend to succeed by convincing people that there is a debate at all. We succumb to what is known as the golden mean fallacy – the truth must be somewhere in the middle, right?

Canadians are particularly prone to this kind of thinking. We just love to compromise and wallow in the middle-ground.

We reporters are far, far too often guilty of presenting both “sides” of an argument that isn’t actually an argument at all.

But a lot of issues have no middle ground. There’s a right side and a wrong side. I’m not talking about moral debates, like the one over the death penalty or abortion. I’m talking about things that can be measured.

What if we tried to compromise with everyone?

Let’s say I wanted to push you off a 100-metre building.

You would naturally object to this, as you don’t feel the need to see what the inside of your skull looks like. Shall we compromise and I’ll push you off a 50-metre building? Maybe just 25? C’mon, I must have a really good reason for wanting to do it!

Or consider the handful of flat earth enthusiasts who still roam the world. What is the compromise with their position? That the earth is a cube?

Put that starkly, it’s easy to see that sometimes there’s no compromise. But the desire on muddier issues, where we aren’t so sure, is powerful. This is why politicians create strawmen. They caricature their opponents’ ideas, making them outrageous. Then they rush to occupy the “middle” position, one they just created!

“My opponent wants to throw puppies into stump grinders! I just think we should just euthanize abandoned dogs rather than pay to house them. Doesn’t that sound more reasonable?”

No, no it doesn’t, not if the alternative is a no-kill shelter!

This is closely related to another fallacy, the false dilemma. Two options are given – and only two! Usually this is done as a tactic to force people to take the option the presenter wants to win.

“We can either build a $500 million bridge, or not have a crossing at all!” So no ferry service, then?

Avoiding both the golden mean and false dilemma fallacies is difficult. Everyone will slide into one or both of them at one point or another. Yet by finding what can be proved to work, we can often avoid both.

Want to debate the length of jail sentences? More time in jail versus probation – or do we fund more programs to keep kids from becoming criminals in the first place? Do we have to choose between a strong economy based on burning fossil fuels or shivering in the dark? Not if we keep making progress on solar panels and next-generation nuclear power.

Finding out what works is hard. When we do find it, that’s when we need to take a stand and stop compromising.

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