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pseudosymmetry (of scientific authority)

The false impression given by the mass media that scientists are equally divided on an issue. In its attempt at journalistic balance or in an effort to make a story more compelling, the mass media can give the public the impression that a single individual or a small band of contrarians represents a large group of scientists which disagrees with another large group of scientists. Such "balance" can give the impression that a scientific consensus has not been reached and that an issue is considered controversial within the scientific community when, in fact, it is not.

The term was coined, as far as I know, by cultural anthropologist Christopher Toumey in his book Conjuring Science: Scientific Symbols and Cultural Meanings in American Life (1996). [The term has another, later, introduction and evolution in template design and crystallography, which does not concern us here.]

Examples of the pseudosymmetry of scientific authority can be found in the way the American media covers acupuncture, climate change, cold fusion, corn as the source of tomorrow's fuel, evolution, fluoridation of municipal water supplies, a human mission to Mars, and free energy (perpetual motion machines) issues.

The pseudosymmetry of scientific authority significantly affects public opinion in some cases but not in others. Pseudosymmetry has significantly affected the issue of vaccination to the point where many intelligent, educated people are not having their children vaccinated against diseases like measles. On the other hand, creationists have won a few skirmishes in the attempt to get their religious views of creation into the biology classroom. Despite the "teach the controversy" campaign of the intelligent design folks, they have lost all the major battles in court. And they have had very little success in convincing the American public that evolution represents moral anarchy and all things evil. Antifluoridationists, on the other hand, waged many successful campaigns in public referenda, even though there was little science or fact to support their fears. They were helped in their cause by the widespread mistrust of government. The same has been the case with the 9/11 conspiracy movement and the AIDS denial movement. Government mistrust is evident in whatever following these movements have, but the mainstream media ignores them and gives them zero credibility. Also, even though many media critics believe that climate change contrarians have been given equal time to consensus scientists who believe the evidence proves beyond a reasonable doubt that Earth's temperature is rising and that humans are contributing to the rise with increasing carbon dioxide emissions, 85% of us believe global warming is happening and threatens future generations. And even though more than half of all American adults reject evolution, religious training is likely the main factor in such massive disbelief of a basic biological fact.

Journalists are rarely trained scientists, so it is not surprising that they covered the cold fusion fiasco of Pons and Fleischmann in such a way as to give the scientists all due respect even though it turned out that these chemists (and a few others who agreed that maybe the Utah pair were on to something really big) didn't understand enough physics to know what they were doing. On the other hand, journalists should have been skeptical of the way the university handled the matter and lobbied for funds in Washington before a single scientific paper had been presented. Journalists may not understand science but they should understand competition for potentially lucrative patents, greed, and deception. In any case, today only a few outcasts give any serious attention to cold fusion.

Unfortunately, sometimes the outcasts and oddballs who cling to ideas that the vast majority of the scientific community thinks are foolish happen to be powerful politicians whose every word, no matter how uninformed, is considered newsworthy.

See also anti-vaccination movement, climate change deniers, contrarian, manufactroversy, and nasty effect, .

further reading

Mooney, Chris. (2005). The Republican War on Science. Basic Books.

Mooney, Chris. (2007). Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming. Harcourt.

Park, Robert L. (2000). Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud. Oxford U. Press.

Toumey, Christopher P. (1996). Conjuring Science: Scientific Symbols and Cultural Meanings in American Life. Rutgers University Press. (Review by Douglas Allchin)


[new] Why People Are Confused About What Experts Really Think by Derek J. Koehler

"....journalists too often generate 'false balance,' creating an impression of disagreement when there is, in fact, a high level of consensus. One solution, adopted by news organizations such as the BBC, is 'weight of evidence' reporting, in which the presentation of conflicting views is supplemented by an indication of where the bulk of expert opinion lies.

"But whether this is effective is a psychological question on which there has been little research. So recently, I conducted two experiments to find out; they are described in a forthcoming article in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. Both studies suggest that 'weight of evidence' reporting is an imperfect remedy. It turns out that hearing from experts on both sides of an issue distorts our perception of consensus — even when we have all the information we need to correct that misperception." (emphasis added) [/new]

Last updated 17-Oct-2013

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