Saturday, January 21, 2006

Do Writers Have an Obligation to Present Both Sides of an Issue?

I wrote a review of Lee Strobel's Case for Christ that was published in 1999 in the peer-reviewed journal, Philo, the official journal of the Society of Humanist Philosophers. In that review, I concluded:


Strobel did not interview any critics of Evangelical apologetics. He sometimes refutes at great length objections not made by the critics (e.g., the claim that Jesus was mentally insane); more often, he doesn't address objections the critics do make (e.g., the unreliability of human memory, that non-Christian historians do not provide any independent confirmation for the deity of Jesus, etc.) Perhaps this will be a welcome feature to people who already believe Christianity but have no idea why they believe it. For those of us who are primarily interested in the truth, however, we want to hear both sides of the story.
Because I criticized Strobel for failing to interviewing any critics of Evangelical apologetics, I have been asked whether I believe that all Christian apologists (or, more broadly, whether all advocates for any given viewpoint about any subject) must present both sides.

For the record, I have never believed and do not presently believe that advocates for a particular position on a controversial issue must present both sides. If someone wants to write a book for, say, a particular position on abortion, I don't think they are under any obligation to present the arguments against their position in their book. Of course, they may choose to address such arguments, but they are under no obligation to do so.

So why, then, did I criticize Lee Strobel for failing to interviewing critics of Evangelical apologetics? After all, isn't the title of Strobel's book The Case for Christ, not The Case against Christ? As I explained very clearly in a follow-up article on the Secular Web, "Strobel's book is promoted as the work of a professional journalist."If The Case for Christ had not been promoted as the work of a professional journalist, I never would have expected Strobel to meet minimum journalistic standards and I never would have criticized him for failing to interview critics of his position.

So, again, I don't expect Christian apologists (or any advocates for any controversial position) to include the case against their position. With that said, I can think of two cases where I think it is appropriate to criticize a writer for failing to include the other side. First, if the writer claims to have presented both sides and fails to do so, then I think it is appropriate to point that out. Although Strobel does consider objections to the arguments for Christianity he discusses, those objections are not representative of the best objections that critics of those arguments have presented. Again, Strobel sometimes refutes at great length objections not made by the critics; more often, he doesn't address objections the critics do make. For that reason, I place Strobel into this first category where it is appropriate to criticize a writer for failing to include the other side (in the sense just described).

Second, if the writer makes an inductive argument for a conclusion but the premises of the argument do not embody all available relevant evidence, it is equally appropriate to point that out. Remember that the conclusion of an inductive argument does not have a 100% probability conditional upon the premises of the argument. (In other words, inductive arguments are invalid.) Rather, the premises of a logically correct inductive argument make the conclusion highly probable. Inductive arguments that fail to embody all of the available evidence relevant to their conclusion are not logically correct arguments. Again, I think it is always legitimate to criticize logically incorrect arguments.

That I do not expect Christian apologists to present the case against their positions can be clearly seen from the other reviews I've written of other Christian apologetics books:



  • In my 1999 review of Ravi Zacharias's book, Can Man Live Without God?, I did not accuse Zacharias of failing to meet some mythical requirement that all authors at all times must present both sides. I did point out that Zacharias makes things easy for himself by, for example, suggesting there is a vast secular conspiracy to discredit theism because it smacks of "moral constraint" but neglecting the possibility that atheists are atheists because of good arguments for atheism, arguments Zacharias never discusses. (In other words, there is available evidence that is relevant to the conclusion of Zacharias's inductive argument about a secular conspiracy, evidence not included within the premises of Zacharias's argument.) But, again, I never criticized Zacharias for failing to present both sides as such.
  • A very similar observation could be made regarding my 2001 review of Josh McDowell's New Evidence That Demands a Verdict, where I wrote, "McDowell has no obligation whatsoever to communicate with me or to answer our critique. But he cannot claim that his book has been "fully updated" when he ignores a direct and comprehensive rebuttal to it." The criticism here is not that McDowell failed to include our critique. Rather, the criticism is that McDowell claimed his book was "fully updated" when it ignored a critique. Not only I did not criticize McDowell in that review for failing to present both sides as such, but I explicitly stated that he has "no obligation whatsoever" to present both sides as such.
I hope that this post sufficiently clarifies my position regarding whether advocates for a position have an obligation to present both sides.

13 comments:

Jim Lippard said...

It should also be noted that even in a journalistic context, sometimes there are not "both sides" of equal weight--sometimes there are more than two viewpoints, and sometimes there is the clearly correct view and a bunch of nonsensical views. It is not appropriate in a journalistic context to present a bunch of nonsensical views as having equal weight with the correct view. Chris Mooney has written a good piece for the Columbia Journalism Review on how presenting a "balanced" view is often a form of misrepresentation when covering science, here: http://www.cjr.org/issues/2004/6/mooney-science.asp

Frank Walton said...

With all due respect, Mr. Lowder, but who are you a non-jounalist to tell a journalist how to present his report? There have been plenty of jounalists who have been one-sided; yet they were not deemed at fault for being so.

the metaphysician said...

JJL:

To be fair to Strobel, he does present 'opposing views' in the various interviews of his that make up the book's chapters. That is, he often plays 'devil's advocate' and raises various objections to his interviewees. So, I think that your real objection to Strobel's book is not that he doesn't consider the opposing side, but that, rather, having played devil's advocate (by raising various objections) he is satisfied much too easily, e.g. after an objection is raised, an answer is given, at which point the journalist Strobel reckons himself satisfied (with the answer)--when someone of a more skeptical bent (like yourself! ;) might--or would--have pressed harder, with follow-up questions/objections.

I guess Strobel could reply that, in that case, his book would have been much thicker and not as marketable. And besides, the answers given do seem satisfactory to him--so he had no reason to probe any further. And I guess he has that perogative as an author.

So, in short, to counterbalance what might be perceived as a deficient (or too perfunctory) presentation of the skeptic's side, I think it would be nice if someone (a secularist counterpart of Strobel--a former Christian turned atheist, perhaps?) writes a book entitled The Case Against ________, for the relevant '_________'s.

Then maybe some marketing genius will figure out how to sell the various "case for/case against" books as a package. :)

TheJollyNihilist said...

This is a really great site. Keep it up! I will be reading regularly from now on.

Some sites you might enjoy browsing, when you have a chance...

http://libertariandefender.blogspot.com - The Libertarian Defender (atheist, skeptic, libertarian)
http://www.atheistresource.co.uk/index.html - The Atheist Resource (self-explanatory, I think!)

Keep up the great work. Cheers mate!

Jeffery Jay Lowder said...

Metaphysician -- I see your point. I assume your comment is in reference to my statement, "First, if the writer claims to have presented both sides and fails to do so, then I think it is appropriate to point that out. Strobel's book clearly falls into this category and it is therefore legitimate to criticize him on those grounds." I should have made it clear that, as you point out, Strobel did present objections albeit weak ones. I could then have quoted from the conclusion of my original essay: "He sometimes refutes at great length objections not made by the critics (e.g., the claim that Jesus was mentally insane); more often, he doesn't address objections the critics do make (e.g., the unreliability of human memory, that non-Christian historians do not provide any independent confirmation for the deity of Jesus, etc.)"

Jeffery Jay Lowder said...

Metaphysician -- I have updated the blog entry along the lines just discussed.

polishnikoff said...

So,I just read your post,and I'm wondering something,your critisizing someone for the way they believe about something,correct?Now,your an atheist,so since you believe there's no God,(in your worldview)you must also believe there's no moral code,there's nothing that defines good or bad,nothing that defines what is worthy of praise,NOTHING THAT DEFINES WHAT IS WORTHY OF CRITISISM...you have no room to critisize anything...

the metaphysician said...

Polishnikoff said (to JJL):

"Now,your an atheist,so since you believe there's no God,(in your worldview)you must also believe there's no moral code,there's nothing that defines good or bad,nothing that defines what is worthy of praise,NOTHING THAT DEFINES WHAT IS WORTHY OF CRITISISM...you have no room to critisize anything..."

Myself being a theist, I wish showing atheism to be wrong were that easy. But, by my lights, there's at least six (gaping) holes in your argument (shall we call it that?) against Jeffery's post that needs filling out, before you will have even so much as a decedent argument here.

the metaphysician said...

Akkk...I meant to say 'decent' (not 'decedent') in the last sentence of the post above. Sorry.

the metaphysician said...

JJL:

For your information...

http://secularoutpost.blogspot.com/2006/01/militant-agnosticism.html#c113968493438380364

Hallq said...

Frankly, I think it should be obvious to even the truest of true believers than the whole journalism thing was just fancy wrapping paper for an apologetic work. Actually, when I first read the book, the court case motif came off stronger than the journalism one, and anyway, I think (or hope!) that people immediately realize a real court case involves presenting both sides.

Perhaps, though, I just haven't read the right promotional literature. The website for The Case for the Creator heavily implies that the view presented is consensus rather than extreme minority, as when it speaks of "the world's top experts" - leaving me wondering where Richard Dawkins is in his list of interviewees.

Kevin Parry said...

I've just read and reviewed Lee Strobel's Case for a Creator on my blog and I have the same problem with his unbalanced presentation of both sides of the argument. And he appeals to readers to make up their own minds!

All the best
Kevin

Memoirs of an ex-Christian

bbowen737 said...

I think Jeff's criticism of Strobel's book is dead on.
The dust jacket calls Strobel a "seasoned journalist" who "systematically tracks down his leads and asks the blunt, tough questions...questions that can make or break the Christian faith." Strobel "refuses contrived, simplistic answers." etc.
More significantly, Strobel pushes this selling point in the introduction. He describes a criminal case where an innocent man was convicted of a crime, and where the evidence initially seemed to support the conviction, but additional evidence later persuaded Strobel that the man was innocent. Strobel comments: "One of the most obvious lessons ws that evidence can be aligned to point in more than one direction. ...But the most key questions were these: Had the collection of evidence really been thorough? And which explanations best fit the totality of the facts?"
Clearly, Strobel is setting himself up as a careful and objective investigator and judge. So it is not just the marketing people at Zondervan who are placing a mantle of objectivity on Strobel's shoulders. He implies that he is taking an objective journalistic approach to the subject.
Strobel is either deceived or a deciever on this point, and as a supposed leading advocate of Christianity, it is only fair to point out this intellectual dishonesty in The Case for Christ.