Image of many protesters in Charlottesville
"Charlottesville 'Unite the Right' Rally" by Anthony Crider is licensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr)

In early December, Kelly Craft, the new US ambassador to Canada, stated in an interview that she believes “both sides” of climate science. When asked directly whether that meant that she believed that human-made climate change was a real phenomenon, she stated that “both sides have their own results, from their studies, and I appreciate and respect both sides of the science.” As many pointed out, this position is misinformed: there is an overwhelming scientific consensus that human-made climate change is indeed a real phenomenon; indeed, it was expressed by a recent report conducted by hundreds of scientists from the US itself. This is not to say that there are not unresolved questions about climate change, nor is it to imply that there is universal agreement amongst scientists with regards to the facts about climate change. And there are of course those who continue to deny that climate change is occurring, or occurring for the reasons that scientists have stated. Nevertheless, the mere fact that there are two sides to an issue does not mean that both sides are equally well supported by evidence or that there are no reasons to prefer one side over the other.

Recently, there seems to have been an increase in the amount of, for lack of a better term, bothsidesism. One such instance that many found particularly egregious was Donald Trump’s comment in the aftermath of the Charlottesville protests last year that there were “very fine people on both sides,” which many interpreted as Trump lending his support for, or at the very least failing to condemn, white nationalism. More recently, PayPal banned a number of accounts associated with the far-right group Proud Boys, but at the same time also banned accounts belonging to a number of anti-fascist groups. As The Guardian reports, many found PayPal’s grouping together of these two sides as a failure to distinguish between groups that spread hate speech and those that attempt to fight against it. As was the case in the aftermath of Trump’s remarks, PayPal’s actions were interpreted by some as another instance of catering to the interests of the far-right.

Although these cases are different – the first involving Craft’s treating “both sides” of climate science as equally legitimate, and the second involving the equivalent treatment of far-right hate groups and those protesting against them – they have something important in common. In these cases there are, broadly speaking, two sides to some issue. The balance of reason and evidence, however, supports one side over the other: there is overwhelming evidence to believe that human-made climate change is a genuine phenomenon, for example, and overwhelming reason to believe that white nationalist hate groups are morally reprehensible. Bothsidesism occurs, then, when the mere fact that there is more than one side to an issue is, itself, taken to imply that there is a reason to remain agnostic with regards to an issue, or else to imply that both sides are equally worth considering.

We need to be careful here: there are many issues about which there are competing views, and in which it may very well be appropriate to say that one appreciates that there are good arguments on both sides. The problem I have in mind is not like this. Instead, the problem with bothsidesism is that a disagreement is presented as a legitimate one, with both sides deserving equal discussion, simply because there is disagreement, and not because there is, in fact, good reason to consider both sides.

Legitimate disagreements, on the other hand, are driven by a search for the right answer to a question, and so both sides are given careful consideration because one wants to figure out which one is right. Many recent incidents of bothsidesism, however, appear to not be driven by any concern for the truth, but are instead motivated by political or other practical concerns. After Craft’s remarks on climate change, many pointed out that her husband is a multi-millionaire coal magnate, and thus Craft herself is presumably highly motivated to deny the existence of climate change. Critics of Trump after his Charlottesville remarks argued that Trump was trying to prevent the alienation of a key demographic of votes, while critics of PayPal argue that they are motivated by monetary concerns, not wanting to lose users who might have far-right political affiliations.

There are many potentially moral concerns surrounding the kind of bothsidesism considered here. First, there are always potentially bad consequences in spreading misinformation – in these cases, this misinformation involves the implication that both sides are equally well supported by evidence. Second, a consequence of the spread of this information is an emboldening of those holding the minority view. For example, as Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman at The New York Times argued, Trump’s “equating activists protesting racism with the neo-Nazis and white supremacists” after Charlottesville “buoyed the white nationalist movement.” Continuing to believe that there are equally good arguments on both sides of the climate change debate could have disastrous consequences of its own, as continuing to debate an issue that has received scientific consensus threatens forestalling important actions related to preventing further environmental damage.

Some have proposed that the best way to deal with certain types of bothsidesism is to refuse to engage in debate, thus refusing to give a side that is not worth consideration and kind of consideration at all. For example, in response to a recent report from the UK by Ukip MEP Stuart Agnew denying the existence of climate change, MEP Molly Scott Cato created a petition of “politicians, scientists, academics and campaigners” to pledge to “refuse to debate those who deny that human-made climate change is real.” Cato’s goal is to stop giving a “voice to the pseudoscience of climate change deniers; we must urgently move the debate on to how we address the causes and effects of dangerous climate breakdown.” Refusing to debate the existence of climate change thus prevents climate denial from being given any sort of legitimacy, and thus can prevent the harms associated with failing to take action with regards to climate change.

Again, we should not conclude that there are no legitimate cases in which there are two sides of an issue that deserve equal consideration; nor should we think that it is always appropriate to refuse to engage in debate when we disagree with a minority view. But when views are motivated not by a concern for the truth, or when the motivations behind holding one’s views are morally reprehensible, giving such views equal consideration simply because they are contrarian can be actively harmful.

Ken Boyd is currently lecturer in philosophy at the University of Toronto at Scarborough. His philosophical work concerns the ways that we can best make sure that we learn from one another, and what goes wrong when we don’t. You can read more about his work at kennethboyd.wordpress.com.