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Decisions, Decisions: The Problem with “You Decide.”

Sounds Sciencey

Sharon Hill

July 2, 2012

scale being stepped on by a foot

What typical ploy is used on a Bigfoot news site, in a documentary on ancient aliens, and when soliciting a vote for a political candidate? It’s the “you decide” gambit. But it’s not as straightforward as it seems to just state your case and leave the audience with their decision to pick the “best” option. As with everything that requires evaluation, how you decide is based on a complicated process of what you are given, how you are given it, and how it fits into your framework of the world.

My memory may be biased, but doesn’t it seem like every unsolved mystery television program has ended with the proposition “you decide?” At the close of various documentaries about Bigfoot, UFOs, or psychic powers, the narrator dramatically summarizes the evidence and asks, “Is this fact or fiction? You decide.” As I learned more about the tactics used in these kinds of presentations, I became annoyed by that closing bit. This piece might best be labeled “Sounds Reasonable-ish.” It applies to many sciencey sounding claims made by the media and information sources.

The premise of “you decide” is that we, the source, will give you information about a choice you can make (e.g., believe or not, use this or not, pick this one or not). Then, you, intelligent person, can judge for yourself what the best decision is. It sounds democratic. It appeals to your vanity as a smart, responsible person. But in this case, it's a sly marketing trick.

People like to think they are being rational and that they do a decent job of fairly weighing both sides of an issue before forming a conclusion. But many factors come into play. How often do we fully assess and understand what we are given and how we might have been influenced? Not very often. And that's the core of what's wrong with proposing, “you decide.”

As I noted, paranormal purveyors pull this maneuver. It's a particularly handy gambit for those organizations or individuals promoting a view that lacks scientific backing–Creationism and intelligent design proponents, vaccination choice or anti-vax advocates, fear mongering groups warning about health risks from certain consumer items or promoting all-natural, chemical-free products. They will feed you their story and put you, the concerned parent and/or conscientious consumer, in the position to choose what appears to be the logical and ethical choice. This works as an effective manipulation to get you to accept their position.

False Balance and False Choice

When presenting information to the public in order to persuade acceptance of a position, two false setups may be used: false balance and false choice. Once you recognize them, you can spot them all over the place.

The journalistic idea of balance is that a story should portray both sides. A pro-topic spokesperson (or advocate) and a token skeptic are featured in newspaper articles or TV news clips. We get the pro and con. Sort of. That’s only two sides. I have a hard time coming up with a real-life scenario that isn’t multi-faceted and complicated. Some have no right choice or multiple right choices. Granted, TV news and newspaper formats are limited in time and space so the complexity of a situation has to be greatly simplified. The real world reaction to an issue is far more complicated than unambiguously choosing option A over B.

Often, the choices we make are based on our current situation, or we try to pick the “least of all evils” option because there is no ideal option—I’m thinking of elections, of course. Negative ads for candidates are the most egregious examples of false balance. All they present is the bad, and that’s the sort of gunk that sticks in your head and is recalled when the candidate’s name is mentioned. Yet those ads frequently end with, “Do you want to see candidate X do that to your town/state? Come this Election Day, you decide!” Oh great, thanks for poisoning the well.

Certain media sources will tout their fair presentation of news. But their attempt at balancing viewpoints may be completely out of line with the accuracy and weight of the evidence that supports those points. If you take away nothing else regarding the “you decide” gambit, remember and use this:

Not all positions are equally worthy of serious consideration. 1

There are endless examples of situations in which alternatives are not equal but are presented side-by-side as if they should be treated as such. Some views have the backing of substantial evidence and scientific knowledge, while others are just someone speculating or making it up whole cloth. The trouble is, without some prior knowledge, you may not know whether the information you are being presented is an accurate assessment or problematic.

Your local reporters or the producers of a pseudo-documentary show may also not have prior knowledge of the topic and thus may present a view that is falsely balanced to the audience: one poorly supported side is artificially propped up to look legitimate and equal to the other. That’s not my idea of fair at all. This is a particular problem with science reporting because science is a specialized topic that requires significant research to understand it.

In 2011, I interviewed Lauri Lebo, a local reporter who covered the famous Kitzmiller v. Dover trial, which reaffirmed that intelligent design has no place in science class. She said that journalists were nervous about reporting on science news: “Everyone is afraid to speak the truth about everything because they’ll be told they are biased. That’s a terrible way to approach science coverage!” Very few journalists have a scientific background. Due to time constraints, they can only briefly research the subject and frequently rely on eyewitnesses (as if one person’s experience can trump decades of accumulated knowledge) or one expert. So, the public receives pseudoscientific ideas presented alongside a well-tested, well-established scientific theory. In these days of information overload, do reporters have a responsibility to go beyond just putting all views out there? Or should they strive to provide context for the choices? There is a justifiable excuse to be biased; the stronger case should be presented with greater vigor in the name of accuracy.

Were we to go by literal weight of evidence alone—say, the weight of peer reviewed, established documentation—the anti-evolutionist would be crushed under mounds of paper. To counter that reality, creationists use emotional and seemingly logical or rational arguments—ploys like “teach the controversy” or “academic freedom”—to underpin their case. They also dish out false information, unconfirmed “facts,” and only their half of the story. But to those who have a philosophical leaning toward the creationism story (or any paranormal or pseudoscientific idea), the non-scientific or science-like arguments are compelling enough for them to choose that view. It takes practice to spot the flimsy foundation of some of these sensational ideas and not just eat up whatever you are given because it tastes good and digests easily.

The use of false choice is another byproduct of space and time constraints in today’s media outlets. Or, it could be just shallow thinking. False choice (a.k.a. false dichotomy, false dilemma) is when the options are only A or B. Is the Loch Ness monster real or a hoax? Did this person see a UFO or are they lying? The real world presents us with far more explanatory options than just two. To suggest the options are limited to two is dishonest since it excludes the vast middle ground. It can also be used to sort you into a camp: skeptic vs. believer, for example, where skeptic means “cynical and closed-minded.” Quite sneaky—and wrong. When I spot false dilemmas, I note the lack of critical thinking and flag that information source as potentially untrustworthy.

Informed Decision or Opinion

It's a busy world out there. We don’t always have the time to carefully consider a question. The process of deciding is often based on heuristics (thinking short-cuts, rules of thumb, generalizations, and common sense) and ideology (body of doctrine, myths of belief). Deciding upon the believability of paranormal or fringe claims is likely not a matter of fairly weighing the evidence but rather reliance on what feels right to you. When a person evaluates a casual issue that has little influence on daily life and well-being (such as ghosts, UFOs, or Bigfoot), rarely has that person scoured the literature for evidence and various viewpoints. Instead, the influence comes from stories heard or perhaps even personal experiences for which a definitive explanation is lacking. It’s easy to say “There may be something to it…” and “It’s possible….” It’s also fun to entertain those thoughts when there is usually no great societal impact (though some might argue that there is). With the ubiquity of paranormal- and supernatural-friendly communities and activities out there, it makes it easy to buy into those beliefs.

Public opinion polls are everywhere in the media. They provide the illusion of participation and serve as an outlet for passing judgment. Websites overflow with these question boxes because they are interactive and make the participant feel as if they are contributing to deciding on an issue. Websites’ poll results are unscientific and practically worthless as data because of the selection methods, poorly worded questions, and incomplete choices. “Do you think UFOs exist?” is an example of a bad question format. It raises questions before you can answer it. What do you mean by “UFOs”? “Exist” truly as unidentified objects or as people perceive them? I particularly notice poll questions that are worded as if science is a democracy, such as: “Should creationism be part of the science curriculum?” or “Do you think vaccines are safe?” Next time you see an online quick-click poll, evaluate the question carefully to see if the options they give are actually all the options available for an answer. Their purpose is not to be definitive about the issue (as participants may assume) but instead to appeal to the “you decide” gambit.

If You Choose Not to Decide, You Still Have Made a Choice

How many times have we skeptically minded people been told that we are closed-minded because we don’t outwardly accept the reality of an alternative treatment, psychic powers, or a spiritual encounter? In keeping an open mind, you don’t decide: I don’t know if psi exists. It’s possible, but the data so far are not at all convincing to me. Or, I may change my mind: Psi doesn’t exist as far as we know right now but there is the possibility that someday it may be measurable via a new method.

The same set of evidence can be interpreted differently depending upon what the interpreter considers reliable evidence, what their biases are, and their existing knowledge about the subject. Or, the analyst may decide that there isn’t enough evidence to come to a conclusion. Scientists nearly always wish for more data to, hopefully, make things clearer. That’s why scientific theories are continually tweaked and honed based on the incoming evidence over time that sharpens or changes them. We can’t always have all the information we wish we did in order to make a clean judgment. So, as a good critical thinker, the right choice is to withhold our decision.

To conclude this glimpse into the “you decide” gambit, I’ll express my hope that you look for and spot its use and misuse. Asking an audience to decide on a choice is only fair if you are an honest broker of all the information available: you weigh the presentation of evidence based on its quality and reliability and present all options, not just two. When asked to decide, remember that your choices may be unlimited.


Reference

1. Pigliucci, M. (2012) Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk. University of Chicago Press.

Sharon Hill

Sharon Hill's photo

Sharon Hill specializes in issues of science and the public and runs the Doubtful News website. Sharon can be reached at shill@centerforinquiry.net.