Both sides

Alan Boyle posted Allen Esterson’s reply to Troemel-Ploetz on ‘Cosmic Log’ today. I meant to say something else about the November 20 post (the one with Troemel-Ploetz’s reply) yesterday but I forgot. (I know, I know. But I can only hold one thought in my head at a time. Be patient with me.) But it’s interesting, and it’s always coming up. It’s something Boyle said this time:

We’ve gone back and forth over the role that Albert Einstein’s first wife, Mileva Maric, may have played in the development of the special theory of relativity…and now I’ve gotten the other side of the story from Senta Troemel-Ploetz…

The other side. Of the story. But it isn’t a story, and there isn’t another side.

Or, of course, it is and there is, in a sense, but in another and more important sense, it isn’t and there isn’t. It is a story in the sense that journalists mean a story: it can be shaped into a story, it has some interest. There is another side in the sense that journalists mean another side: there is someone who said something. But that is not a very weighty sense. There is no story in the sense of a genuine, valid, difficult controversy with merit on each side of the question. There is no other side in the sense of a claim backed up by a lot of (or even a moderate amount of) genuine evidence or by compelling questions about missing evidence or shaky inferences. There is simply a claim, based on almost no real evidence (I say ‘almost’ simply because ‘our work’ could perhaps in conjunction with a lot more, real evidence be considered one piece) and a lot of wild surmise and ‘for all we know’ hand-waving. That’s not an ‘other side’ in the normal meaning of the term. But that’s how journalism does these things, which is one reason there’s so much nonsense flying up and down the corridors. Somebody claims something; with a little luck and hard work, the something makes it into a newspaper or a movie or a book or tv; the something gets passed around and discussed and chatted about, and in a few short months it has become common knowledge. And then we’re stuck with it. And then people with better sense become aware that this claimed something has become common knowledge and they point out that it is based on little or nothing and is, if one looks into the matter carefully and impartially and with an attention to evidence, wrong. But what happens then is not necessarily that everyone looks at the evidence on both sides and promptly grasps that side one has no evidence to speak of but just said something one day while the other side has abundant evidence that things were otherwise; no; what happens then is often that people simply say ‘Ah, two sides here, let us have balance and attend to both sides.’

Often of course that is just the right thing to do. Often there are, even, more than two sides. But not always. Not always. If the original claim is just…more or less pulled out of someone’s (cough) ear, then giving equal time and attention to both sides may well be just a waste of time and attention, and in addition to that it may be misleading to the unwary, who think that if there are two sides there must be two sides with a good case and sound evidence. Alas for the innocent and pure of heart.

A reader who commented at Cosmic Log sees things that way. It would be right if it were right, but in fact…it isn’t.

It seems to me that there is a fundamental difference of opinion here which can never be resolved until someone invents a time machine, and goes back to find out. Each point of view is an opinion which cannot be verified by objective fact. The fragmentary evidence which exists does not support either side of the argument except when taken out of context, because the larger context no longer exists, both parties under examination having been dead for some time.

Well, in this particular example, that just isn’t the case: the evidence does support Allen’s side of the argument – more especially since in fact Troemel-Ploetz offered literally no evidence at all. Sometimes the ‘both sides of the story’ thing can just confuse the audience.

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