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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Specious Balance

We made a family visit to a couple we’ve known forever but have not seen for years — they now have 3 kids, no car, and we all have busy lives so it takes planning to figure out when our schedules match. I first knew him when I was at Holt and he was an adult editor there, while she and I had the same doctoral adviser at NYU — smart, engaged people. We got talking about the media, comparing the kind of control of media dictators exerted and enjoyed in the 20th century to the cacaphony of news sources available now that are beyond control, but also level all information, such that fake “reality” events are of equal weight to, say, the crisis in the Euro or rise of HIV in young black women in America. Our host then came up with the wonderful term I’ve used as the title for this blog, “specious balance.”

Every journalist (and classroom teacher) knows it is important to be fair, to seek out opposing views. But when do those views matter, and when can the writer, the teacher, the student, safely dismiss them without according them space — without taking them seriously? For example, when we say the earth is round and the sun is 93 million miles away, we do not feel that we need to nod to the Flat Earth Society. Even though I actually have seen this, when we mention the Apollo program, we don’t need to mention those who claim it was all a staged fake and that human beings have never touched the moon. And yet, as I have pointed out here before, 72% of high school biology teachers (according to a survey published in the New York Times nationwide blur and fudge how they teach evolution — they offer a “balance” they do not actually believe in, to avoid clashing with irate parents or interest groups.

The Common Core emphasizes getting students to recognize, think with, and develop their own intellectual points of view. The challenge for teachers, and then students, will be how to tell the difference between a warranted balance — giving voice to important challenges and serious conflicting points of view — and when the nod to a differing view is intellectually dishonest. Now in their own lives kids make those distinctions — when there is a rumor about a friend, they sometimes take it seriously and sometimes put it rest in their minds — they are accustomed to making those judgement calls. We need to show them the same weighing and balancing is part of critical thinking and critical reading. Otherwise, in our “open” media environment we only add fog and clutter — all the more making the fake and the real, “reality” and reality, the same.


  1. Myra Zarnowski says:

    Not surprisingly, kids really get into the idea of weighing the importance of ideas. I found this out when I studied historical significance with fifth graders. I asked them which of the ideas they encountered when studying the Japanese internment during WWII was important enough to remember and why. Not only could they do it, but they loved doing it. It put kids in a powerful position of being deciders.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    great example — and perfect approach: why wouldn’t 5th graders want to use their minds to formulate their own theories and explanations? Seems so normal.