Suggesting that there are always two sides to a story may sound entirely reasonable, but I think it’s a notion that could stand some scrutiny. That the Flat Earth Society persists in stating that the world is flat, does not mean that they have an argument worth listening to. When the science is all on one side, and unsupported opinion dominates on the other, we are not looking at a two sided story, we’re looking at fact and fantasy. This is very much the case with climate change, where there is a consensus amongst the vast majority of scientists, and yet the other side of the story – a tiny minority – is given a platform to speak.
We live in an era that doesn’t discriminate between evidence based information, and opinion. It doesn’t help that the opinion side of any story will usually claim that there would be evidence to support their version if only the evidence side did their job properly. If the ‘facts’ are skewed by biased researchers, of course we shouldn’t trust them. The way that the tobacco industry successfully hid the dangers of smoking for so long is a case in point about how asserted ‘facts’ can turn out to be nothing more than marketing.
So, how do you tell if you’re seeing something reliable and evidence-based, or something that’s been paid for? Actual science tends to be wary of asserting facts. It offers theories that are open to change as new things are learned. Science tends to deal in probabilities, not certainties, so proper science can sound a bit cautious, even when its 97% sure about things. People working based on opinion tend to sound a lot more confident, which in turn can seem far more persuasive.
If you’re looking at something evidence led, there may be uncertainty over how best to interpret the data. You may get more than one possible interpretation. You may get questions raised about whatever hasn’t properly been studied. If someone asserts that they know what the data would look like if only someone did the proper research, there’s every reason to be wary.
When considering whether there could be two sides to a story, we have to consider the reliability of our sources. This is not an easy process, and the less education you have, the harder it can be to assess what might be reliable. You can end up mistrusting all authority and so called ‘experts’ if you’ve got no means of telling which ones are being as fair as they can be, and which ones are playing you for their own ends. That mistrust can then be played on by people who do not want you listening to good information, and people who want opinions to be as important as evidence. When those of us who have the privilege of better education and sharper thinking skills denigrate people who are more easily persuaded by less rational things, we feed into this. Denigrate a person and they have no reason to trust you.
Not all opinions have equal weight, either. The opinions of people who want more than their fair share and who want to hurt and harm others do not deserve to be accepted as valid. The opinions of people who are known to lie and manipulate for their own ends, do not deserve to be taken as seriously as the opinions of someone who has always acted well. People who have done the wrong thing, or who wish to exploit others, will say whatever they think it takes to get them what they want. It is in their interests to persuade you that there were two sides to this story all along. The apparently less tolerant person who won’t accept there could be two sides isn’t always the bad guy.
People who are working with evidence can and will show you their evidence. It takes more work on our part than listening to a sound bite. People who have no evidence will ask you to accept that they know best. They may offer that which is clearly too good to be true. They will assert that their evidence exists and that only prejudice keeps the data from being properly collected. They will be more likely to rubbish their opponent than tackle the details of the argument.
Sometimes there aren’t two sides to a story. Sometimes there is no debate to be had, and nothing worthy of being explored. Sometimes there is evidence on one side, and noise on the other. If you aren’t sure who to trust, ask who will benefit and in what ways, should you believe them.