Its headlines like this that make my blood boil; “Pipeline Pits B.C. Whales Against Alberta Jobs”.
Otherwise known as the “either-or fallacy”, this false dichotomy narrows down all options to a set of false contrasting choices.
It is a highly manipulative way of presenting information.
It is also a very useful parenting technique and I remember vividly the moment I learned it. Not a parent myself, I was minding two small boys and one was about to have a meltdown. He was missing his parent and at the moment just before he turned into a puddle of tears and rage, an inspiration came to me. “Would you like the chocolate or the fruit one?”, I asked, pulling out two candy bars. This engaged him; he had a choice and some control over the next few moments of his life. He chose the chocolate (of course!) and happily munched on it, forgetting wherever had triggered his near melt-down.
Seen from the perspective of an adult interacting with a small child, this manipulative trap is obvious, though benign. It is a compelling distraction, shifting the perspective and accompanying emotion from being stuck and perhaps overwhelmed, to a sense of choice and autonomy. There is an impression of moving forward, of resolution, a sense of relief. Complexity is distilled to simplicity.
Presenting information in this way is dangerous when the topic at hand could have significant consequences. The media is particularly egregious in this regard; in a complex world where the choices are not simple and the stakes are high, the role of the media should be to help us make sense of that world, to inform and educate. However, as we know, often we are manipulated for the sake of a cheap headline that will compel our attention and sell the media.
Why are we so easily caught in the either-or thinking trap? There are a host of reasons involving how we perceive and process information through a filter of emotional biases of which we are often largely unaware. Here is a partial list, from A Practical Guide to Critical Thinking, from Greg R. Haskins:
- Perception limitations; we are each aware of only a small portion of reality, however we tend to assume our perception is complete and accurate
- Personal biases and prejudices; we filter information through an emotional screen composed of past experiences, reactions and the conclusions we reach
- Confirmation bias; we actively look for examples that confirm previously held beliefs
Add to that (intentionally or otherwise) manipulative explanations and use of language, and we are easily fooled:
- Emotional appeals; as emotion influences choice and can obscure reason, using emotional language limits awareness
- Use of language to obscure; when accepted uncritically, our thinking can be easily manipulated through ambiguity, doublespeak and false implications
- Use of faulty logic and relying on acceptance at face value, especially when carried on emotional language, either-or thinking is one of many ways our opinions can be manipulated
Back to the headline that inspired this post.
The headline brings us back to the old “environment vs economy” dichotomy that so easily pits people into opinionated camps, according to their bias. We have grown up now and realize that we need livelihoods and a planet that sustains us.
What is not acceptable is the status quo economy, as Jeff Rubin, fellow at the Centre for International Governance and former chief economist at CIBC World Markets so eloquently explains. Purely as a business case, he tears down the notion that a pipeline will deliver anything more than the temporary jobs required to build it, that the Asian markets the product would be destined for pay less, and that the industry itself is in it’s sunset phase, risking investment in a stranded asset. (For an excellent synopsis of Rubin’s argument and others’ questioning the fundamental assumptions behind Trudeau’s choice to approve the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline, please see this article from The Energy Mix).
Presenting this decision as simple either or no-brainer (implying that, although we admire whales, of course jobs have to take president) may pander to ignorance, but does little to help us through the challenging but necessary shift to a post carbon economy.