Is This Documentary Fair?

What does it mean for a presentation of arguments to be fair?

Posted Apr 14, 2014


Saturn. Clearly a spheroid.

Recently I saw a terrific piece of theater at the National Art Centre in Ottawa. It was called "Seeds," and it was about the court case involving a farmer being accused of using Monsanto seeds without paying for them. It was documentary theater, meaning that all the dialogue was said by somebody. There was an ensemble cast, and actors played multiple roles. 

The background of the case, briefly, is that a Canadian farmer was found to have pesticide-resistant crops in his field. The DNA of these crops is owned by Monsanto, who accused him using them without paying Monsanto. The farmer's argument was that the seeds blew in from trucks and other fields. 

In the documentary, the narrator, who played the writer who did the investigations and interviews, said that she got representatives from Monsanto and the farmer to speak because she promised that the documentary was going to be "fair." 

Indeed, by the end of the play I didn't know what I thought. There are compelling arguments from both sides, and facts that don't make sense with any story. So you might say that in the end I was undecided. Another way to put this is that I thought that there was a 50 percent chance Monsanto was right, and a 50% chance that the farmer was right. Which, on the face of it, seems like the documentary was fair. 


Let's look a bit at what it means to be fair for a documentary (or a review article, etc.) that gives both sides of some debate. One way to say it's fair is that it gives equal amounts of information from both sides of the argument. Well, this is clearly not going to work, because not every piece of evidence or information is equally convincing. So let's revise it--a fair documentary will present both sides equally convincingly. 

But this interpretation started to bother me. In the case of "Seeds," I felt that the audience should leave the theater a little confused--more informed, perhaps, but confused. Why? Because the courts took a very long time to come to a decision about the case, and it was appealed. This suggests that it was a hard decision to make, which is evidence that there is a roughly equal probability of either side being right. 

Let's change the topic a bit. What if the debate were about whether global warming is caused by humans? Or whether vaccines cause autism? Or whether evolution is a better theory than creationism? In these cases, the artist might start researching and come to be very convinced of one side or the other. Let's say an artist wants to make a fair documentary about whether vaccines cause autism, and that she really doesn't know anything about it when she starts. She tells people that the documentary will be "fair." With this promise, people are willing to talk to her. But then she realizes, say, that the evidence is terrible that vaccines cause autism, and further that she understands the psychological biases that explain why so many people believe that they do. As her research comes to a close, she is convinced that vaccines do not cause autism (which is the scientific consensus).

Now, how does she go about making a fair documentary about the issue? A talented artist (director, writer, filmmaker, documentarian, etc.) can manipulate the audience to feel what she wants them to feel. So should her goal be to make people confused about the issue, and walk away from the documentary feeling that there is a 50% chance that vaccines cause autism? There is something wrong here. If you don't find this example convincing, make up your own, about something you think is obviously a clear cut issue--perhaps whether the Earth is flat or roughly spherical.

In these cases, it's tempting to say the documentary should present the truth as the documentarian sees it. So if the documentarian is 95% sure that vaccines are safe, then her goal should be to have the audience come away with the same feelings of certainty. But if she does this, will she have fulfilled her promise to her informants that the documentary is fair? 

I don't have a good answer for this moral problem, but I think it's a real one that has ramifications for the arts as well as for scientific review articles.

Being fair is a noble virtue that we should strive for, but it seems that some ideas are so bad that they do not deserve the same amount of attention. 

Pictured: Saturn. Clearly not flat. From Wikimedia Commons. 

Jim Davies is the author of the Riveted, a book about why we find things like explanations believable. It will be released August 5, 2014 and is now available for preorder