Being Fair vs Looking Fair

Via an interesting brief comment on (*)Ezra Klein’s frustrations in trying to be balanced:

All this is true irrespective of your beliefs as to what is good and bad policy, or which ticket you prefer. Quite simply, the Romney campaign isn’t adhering to the minimum standards required for a real policy conversation. Even if you bend over backward to be generous to them — as the Tax Policy Center did when they granted the Romney campaign a slew of essentially impossible premises in order to evaluate their tax plan — you often find yourself forced into the same conclusion: This doesn’t add up, this doesn’t have enough details to be evaluated, or this isn’t true.

I don’t like that conclusion. It doesn’t look “fair” when you say that. We’ve been conditioned to want to give both sides relatively equal praise and blame, and the fact of the matter is, I would like to give both sides relatively equal praise and blame. I’d personally feel better if our coverage didn’t look so lopsided. But first the campaigns have to be relatively equal. So far in this campaign, you can look fair, or you can be fair, but you can’t be both.

Much of the issue that outsiders have with science is that science makes no effort to “look fair”. This is because science has methods of converging on actual truth, and most claims aren’t true. Truth is a very small target in a universe of untruth and nonsense. The job of science is to concentrate on the target, and ignore things in proportion to how far off target they are.

Truth is harder to come by in the softer disciplines. The press should never sacrifice truth for an appearance of fairness. Of course, we do have the burden of defending free speech, as the tragic events of the past few days remind us. And fiction can be entertaining, and occasionally just getting by in the world requires compromises. (I do not argue acupuncture with my sister.) But we have no obligation to pay any attention to anyone other than competent truth-seekers.

cf. me vs Lipo & Hunt.

(*) Until recently I would have said “journalist Ezra Klein” since he gets space in mainstream media, but apparently “journalist” means “daily news reporter” in mainstream media circles. So we need a noun for mainstream-media-contributors. I find “wonk” unbearably wonky, and anyway it excludes various classes of important MSM contributors including daily news reporters.


  1. People also use "pundit", though I think the term has a wide range of positive/negative connotations.

    The same problem arises in teaching: you can appear fair, or you can be fair. Only it's even more complicated than journalism, because then you have to grade your students on their response/interpretation.


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