The Slightly Disgruntled Scientist

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Qanda's Razor

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Imagine this situation: you and someone else, perhaps a friend or relative, are on different sides of a political issue. You both go to watch a debate, or panel discussion, or some similar public forum. You hear both sides argue their cases and it gradually occurs to you that it’s really one sided. The organisers have picked speakers for your side whose expertise isn’t really relevant, or who don’t really know what they’re talking about, or can’t really articulate a case.

You come out of the event, ready to say this, but your companion tells you first: “that was really one sided. They really set up my side to fail.”

How could both of you feel this way? Is it necessarily the case that one of you is right about the debate having an agenda, and one of you is wrong?

Well, maybe, sometimes. But I think we often leap to this conclusion far more often than it actually applies. I think what’s also likely is something I call the Qanda Illusion.

The illusion

The Qanda illusion applies to a situation where a debate, forum, discussion etc. features such poor presentation of both sides of the argument that people on either side will see bias against them.

This happens because there’s a fair chance you don’t know the opposing case as well as your own. You’ll notice every time your own advocates screw up, but you won’t notice the other side’s omissions. You will assume that the other side is fully utilising the chance to present its best arguments. You’ll hear the same arguments you’ve rebutted in your own head a thousand times, and wonder why no one on your side is addressing them.

But anyone on the other side of this will see exactly the same problem applied to their case!

The illusion is that although the debate appears to be skewed, there is no bias. There is only the pretence of evidence or other information and a failure to deliver all around.

Q&A is terrible

I call it “the Qanda illusion” because there is a TV show in Australia, put on by the national, government-funded-but-independent broadcaster ABC named Q&A (hashtag #qanda). Every week it assembles a panel of prominent public figures, an audience carefully curated for balance, and then the audience and host ask questions of the panellists. And every week large numbers of people from both sides of an issue will accuse Q&A, and the ABC, of not being independent, of having some bias, and of pushing a certain agenda.

But as far as I can tell, Q&A’s true sin is simply being devoid of any real information content. Scientific and technical issues are discussed by politicians who don’t even have a high-school level understanding of the topics. Complex cultural issues get panels full of unqualified false-balance contrarians. The show runners don’t even seem to understand that someone actually could be unqualified to talk about science or culture. On the rare occasion a guest is actually qualified or informative, the Q&A format will neutralise any possible gain from this error in programming. There are times when an issue doesn’t even have two sides to present, but the dunces at Q&A will find someone, anyone, who can completely derail an otherwise informative session.

So week after week hundreds of thousands of people watch it, and hate it, and whinge about it because it fails to adequately present their side of a controversy, and will see it as Q&A letting the other side have a free platform for their arguments. In reality, Q&A does offer people a platform, but it’s not for the debate they’re supposed to be having. The show gives airtime to people who already have plenty of it, who don’t know squat about the things under discussion, who instead spout barely relevant talking points or puerile rhetoric.

For any given issue presented by Q&A, people on both sides will watch it and think, “I wish they’d get someone on who could argue the real case for my side.”

It conveys no new information. It resolves no controversies. It answers no questions.

Q&A. Is. Terrible.

The Razor

The Qanda illusion actually makes for a nice philosophical “razor,” in the style of Hanlon’s razor. Hanlon’s razor states:

Never attribute to malice that which can be explained by incompetence.

So Qanda’s razor is a simple variant of this:

Never attribute to bias that which can be explained by an abject lack of information.

Seriously though, Q&A is the worst and needs to be taken out back and shot.

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