Propaganda Prop # 7: Cherry Picking

cherry-picking

You may have heard that the Associated Press recently was compelled to issue a retraction because of an embarrassing photo accompanying an article about global warming.  The article had identified the photo as depicting ice melting at the North Pole; but in fact, it was a seasonally thawed “lake” (actually more of a pond) some 300 miles away. Chances are you heard about this from an anti-science relative, along with the comment, “Aha! This proves that global warming is a hoax.” To which, perhaps, the only suitable response is: “Aha! This proves you know how to cherry pick.”

Cherry picking, the seventh in our series of propaganda tools, consists of zeroing in on evidence that reinforces one’s argument, and discarding evidence that doesn’t.  It’s the result of confirmation bias, which is a tendency — a tendency very deeply ingrained in the human species — to seek out confirmation of one’s beliefs and values. It usually doesn’t entail inaccurate information so much as incomplete information — facts ripped away from their context with other facts that would drastically affect their interpretation.

A frequent telltale sign that you’re being cherried is the reporting of a single anecdote followed by the words “this proves that…”. A single occurrence rarely proves anything except as noted above: The statement “This proves you know how to cherry pick” may be assumed accurate with reasonable safety, because doing something even once proves that you’re at least capable of doing it (it’s pretty damn hard to fly a plane once unless you know how). But it doesn’t prove that you do so habitually, and that’s the basis for “proofs” supported by cherry picking.

You might think that the Associated Press itself was guilty of cherry picking, but most likely it just committed an honest flub, placing the wrong picture with the right story. That’s been known to happen before. As far as Alex Jones and company are concerned, however, the journalists and editors were “blatantly lying”, which proves that global warming is a myth. But the AP had no need to lie or cherry pick, because there is an abundance of photos that starkly reveal thawing polar ice caps on a massive scale.

In any case, the AP gaffe is a journalistic lapse rather than a scientific lapse. It has no bearing whatsoever on the enormous mountain of evidence compiled through decades of climate science research. Yet the denialists speak as if they believe they can bowl that mountain over with a single cherry — from an entirely different orchard, no less.

The op-ed piece pushed by Jones and his faithful flock (it was re-posted from another website, Natural News) employs both of the most common cherries picked by the cult of climate science denial: (A) citing the beliefs of a few of the 3 percent of scientists (many of them affiliated with the petroleum industry and/or right-wing think tanks) as being more substantive than the 97 percent who have reached a consensus on global warming; and (B) citing instances of cold weather as contradicting warmer climate. Actually, long-term warming can contribute to short-term cooling; and the article also ridicules this sound fact as further proof that scientists are “incompetent”.  It also brandishes a couple of phrases that qualify as both straw men and framing: “Earth worshipers on the Left”, suggesting that it’s the “other side” and not the anti-science fanatics who have systematically politicized this issue; and “the lie that mankind’s loathsome habit of improving life is killing the planet”, suggesting that it is the anti-science fanatics rather than the scientists who represent true progress. Cute. The article also indirectly pays homage to “Climategate“, a faux “scandal” that science deniers falsely claim impugns climate research. They really pulled out all the stops on this one. There’s even a nifty explanation for why scientists are so devious and nefarious: “to take away your mobility and force you into crowded urban centers where you can be more easily controlled”.  Heaven knows people in those crowded urban centers are nothing but automatons, with evil scientists pulling their strings.

Cherry picking may be thought of as the flip side or complement of an error that all of us have been guilty of at some time or other: faulty extrapolation — more colloquially known as “jumping to conclusions” . We tend to draw conclusions in line with what we want to believe, even when the evidence is insufficient. And then we try to convince other people that those beliefs are accurate by reversing the process, selecting facts that support the faulty conclusions.

In 1998 a fraudulent study proposed a causal link between autism and certain vaccines. This gained a great deal of traction with the public, in part because children begin to manifest symptoms of autism at about the same age they get the vaccines. So the two must be related, eh? It’s like surveying the smog in Los Angeles and deducing that it must be caused by palm trees. (Which appears to be just what Ronald Reagan may have done.) It’s a classic case of the cardinal sin of sociology: confusing concurrence with cause — or as it’s been expressed, confusing “with” and “because”.

The reputed autism-vaccine link has been soundly discredited, but that won’t stop people from believing it anyway if they are determined to do so. Okay, if you wanna believe it, go ahead. As long as you keep it to yourself, you may be guilty of nothing more than being misled into a faulty conviction.  But when you start trying to sell your misguided belief to other people, you’re committing propaganda via the genus Pluckus redfruitus.

Sometimes people confuse cherry picking with illustration by example. (My attackers have been known to do so.) It’s an easy mistake to make — the line does get rather blurred. So let’s see if we can make it more distinct.

Suppose I’m discussing a certain extremist fringe group — we’ll call it the Koo Koo Klan — and I mention that it is racist.  Then I illustrate this with a particular incident in which the group burned a cross on the lawn of an African-American family. Am I cherry picking or just providing an example? In a sense, it depends on whether the cart came before the horse.

If I’m basing my racist characterization of the KKK only on this one incident, then I just might have crimson-stained fingertips. There might be other reasons why they burned a cross on this family’s lawn. Maybe it was a twisted gesture of affection instead. Maybe they picked a yard totally at random. Maybe they didn’t like families with a certain number of kids or who drive a certain type of car. But if the organization has a history of burning crosses for racist reasons and has explicitly made racist comments in its official documents, promotional materials and speeches, then my conclusion is on much more solid ground; and my inference about this one action being of racist intent is more reliable, and may reliably be taken as an illustrative example rather than a definitive cherry.

As you no doubt are aware, cherry picking is a sort of Olympic sport among political pundits and partisans; and it often leads to some rather fascinating contortions of reason.

Consider, for example, a column by right-wing commentator Larry Elder titled What About the Stupid Lies Democrats Believe? (Elder, incidentally, is the author of the book The Ten Things You Can’t Say in America, which rehashes talking points that he and his fellow ideologues utter frequently even though they’re supposedly forbidden from doing so. They include the claim that “illegitimacy” is “America’s greatest problem”. Really.)  Apparently on the defensive about criticism of the loony things right-wingers believe, he mentions just one of many –i.e., that President Obama is a Muslim — and plucks a few cherries to make it sound like that might not be such a fruitcake belief after all. Then he counters with a list of 5 “lies” left-wingers supposedly believe — which somehow excuses or mitigates the lunacy of right-wing beliefs. (That’s an evasive tactic we’ll be examining in the future).

His list of 5 supposedly wackadoo Democratic beliefs is really not far-fetched at all. and is highly suspect for several reasons. One of these “lies” in particular really jumps off the page at you:  “George W. Bush ‘stole’ the 2000 election”. Which he dismisses with this quote from the New York Times:

A comprehensive review of the uncounted Florida ballots from last year’s presidential election reveals that George W. Bush would have won even if the United States Supreme Court had allowed the statewide manual recount of the votes that the Florida Supreme Court had ordered to go forward. Contrary to what many partisans of former Vice President Al Gore have charged, the United States Supreme Court did not award an election to Mr. Bush that otherwise would have been won by Mr. Gore.

As we discussed in an earlier post (The Media Role in Bush vs. Gore, Part 3: What They Ignored) the allegation of a stolen election in 2000 is founded on numerous factors, all involving soundly documented instances of malfeasance by the Bush camp and/or the GOP on his behalf.  There was, for example, the unwarranted (and evidently unlawful) purge of tens of thousands of likely Democrat voters, months before any ballots were even cast, from the rolls in Florida — where Bush’s brother just happened to be governor and his local campaign chair just happened to be Secretary of State.  And there was the blatantly partisan intervention by a blatantly partisan Supreme Court — two members of which had direct ties to the Bush family and/or campaign — which included unnecessarily halting the Florida recount. And on and on and on.

But Elder ignores all of this, and focuses only on the projections of the media consortium which reviewed ballots long after the election was over.  And it gets even better. He singles out a single statement by a single media outlet summing up the results.  Not that it really matters. He could have found a similar quote in just about any major newspaper. As we discussed before (The Media Role in Bush vs. Gore, Part 4: The Cleanup), the consortium examined the outcomes under several different counting scenarios; and Gore would have won most of them – including any scenario involving a statewide recount of all ballots!  And this, mind you, is even after all the shady shenanigans by the Bush gang. It’s hard to see how anybody could wring an unequivocal Bush victory out of all this, but that’s exactly what the media did. In nearly every case, news reports trumpeted the recount scenarios favoring Bush in its headlines, while burying in fine print the much more significant results favoring Gore. George W. Bush was not picked by the voters, but he was picked repeatedly by the cherry harvesters.

In short, Elder fails to make a case that the stolen election narrative is even wrong — much less that it belongs in the same corner of the loony bin as Obama the Muslim (not to mention death panels, forged birth certificates and Benghazi cover-ups). Yet he purports to have established both with a single quote from a single newspaper. He’s balanced quite a stack of cherries here.

In addition to overtly political topics, you’ll hear the sound of cherries being yanked from trees in relation to a number of other hot-button issues that almost invariably get linked to politics. Probably the two canards I hear cherried most often are: “gun control doesn’t work” and “American media has a liberal bias”.  (Both of these constantly chanted mantras are on Elders list of things you can’t say. Really.) We’ll be dissecting both of these myths in due course. For now let’s just note that “proving” either of them would require an Everest-sized heap of data; but proponents of these beliefs are generally content just to “prove” them with a pebble or two carefully plucked from the mass.

Several years ago, the ever-entertaining National Review ran what may be my all-time favorite instance of cherry picking. There is unquestionably a liberal bias in the media, it declared, because x number of media outlets during a certain period of time ran y stories about “gun control” and only z stories about gun ownership.  First off, the ever-entertaining NR was selecting a single issue as the determining indicator of bias. Then, it heavily stacked the deck by comparing coverage of “gun control” to coverage of gun ownership — how often is the latter really newsworthy? And do you really think that right-wing media would never have any interest in covering “gun control”? This illustrates just one of the many reasons why I can never resist affixing “ever-entertaining” to “National Review”.

None of the foregoing should be construed as an admonition against countering the prevailing paradigm. If I didn’t favor questioning “conventional wisdom”, this blog wouldn’t exist. (The prevailing paradigm, in case you really didn’t know, includes the “conventional wisdom” that media has a “liberal bias”; that “gun control doesn’t work”; that “both sides” are equally hostile and over the top; and that scientists are unscrupulous and inept.) But if you’re going to challenge experts in their own field, you’re going to need a hell of a lot more than your beliefs. And if you expect your beliefs to be taken seriously by people who are knowledgeable on the topic, those beliefs need to be backed up by more than a few cherry picked facts wrenched out of context.

 

29 thoughts on “Propaganda Prop # 7: Cherry Picking

    • I very nearly included an example by a left-wing blogger, but ultimately it just wasn’t extreme or illustrative enough. Left-wing propaganda seldom can compete with right-wing propaganda. That’s why I spend so much time on the latter. And see my comments above about cherry picking vs. illustrating. By the way, I don’t go seeking right-wing extremism to expose. I don’t need to; it comes to me.
      Cherry picking isn’t just being selective or subjective; it isn’t even just being biased. It’s focusing on facts that support a particular argument, while ignoring facts that support a contrary proposition. In order for an activity to be legitimate cherry picking, there needs to be a counter argument that has at least a reasonable chance of being valid. It wouldn’t be cherry picking to cite evidence that the earth revolves around the sun, because the contrary argument would be that it doesn’t.
      My argument in this article is that people often engage in cherry picking; the contrary argument is that they don’t. The examples I’ve used are (more or less) those favored by right-wing extremists. The contrary proposition is that right-wing extremists don’t cherry pick.

      • The left-leaning feminist-driven “human trafficking” movement is probably the greatest cherry-picker in the world today, especially with respect to the almost nonexistent “problem” in the United States. For every allegedly unwilling underage girl on Backpage.com, there are probably a thousand adult women who advertise on it by choice.

        • This is a very bizarre statement indeed. Human trafficking is a very real problem, even if its numbers are somewhat exaggerated. And exaggerating the numbers, even deliberately, can hardly compare with the efforts of right-wing propagandists to smear scientists. And the number of willing participants in the sex trade is irrelevant. I might add that it was George W. Bush who made fighting human trafficking a priority, allotting an unprecedented level of funding to the effort.

        • The issue has its SoCon enablers, as well as others who are pressured into supporting it, like Ashton Kutcher was by his old wife, but it is clearly a radfem driven issue, almost nonexistent here in the United States with respect to sex, and which is reduced to cherry-picking to find isolated examples to support its grant applications and such. The fact of the matter its a dressed-up anti-prostitution campaign and puts sex work in the dark, keeping it from the light which would best prevent problems.

          But what troubles me far more is your elitist notion that “smearing scientists” – who have the safety in numbers not to really have to take such smears seriously – is somehow comparable to the thousands of Americans every single day that are rounded up, jailed, and have their futures ruined for nothing more than attempting to engaging in consensual sex with fellow consenting adults.

          To quote Joseph Welch the last time the people of the United States were subjected to a witch-hunt of the scale of the “human-trafficking” grant machine, “Have you no decency?”

        • Here’s just one response to your claim that the problem is nonexistent. http://www.tulsaworld.com/article.aspx/Human_trafficking_a_growing_problem_in_Oklahoma/20130819_11_A9_CUTLIN625851 And this is just Oklahoma — hardly a bustling cosmopolitan hub. It helps explain why authorities are cracking down so hard on prostitution. I for one don’t think people should be prosecuted or persecuted just for consensual prostitution. The problem is that the world’s oldest profession sometimes covers up the world’s oldest source of cheap labor. By the way, calling the crusaders for this cause cherry pickers is a huge stretch at best. Nobody is claiming that all or even most females — or even that all or most prostitutes — are victims of human trafficking. Just that some are. And that’s undeniably true, no matter how much the numbers may be overestimated.

        • First of all, I didn’t say the problem is nonexistent; I said it is “almost” nonexistent. I’ve followed this issue too closely to say that it is nonexistent, and too closely to say it is anything but close to nonexistent, either.

          Lets examine the article, especially bearing in mind that in order to be financially worthwhile, a trafficker in sex slaves would almost have to be openly marketing to the public, and thus very easy to catch:

          1. An article is written in mid-August, in a city of 400,000 which is the center of a metropolitan area of 1 million people;

          2. Contrary to your assertion, Oklahoma is considered a “hub” for human trafficking http://www.newson6.com/story/22797670/online-claims-of-human-traffickers-going-door-to-door-in-ba-unfounded In fact, that’s standard BS found in every article about virtually every metropolitan area in the world by now, and there is no hub for human trafficking in the United States, by I digress;

          3. 11 days after the article comes out, the state announces that the Tulsa PD has received a $650K grant, in part for sex crimes;

          4. despite the expansive and public nature of the crime, the lead investigator in the article can only identify five investigations the entire police force has had regarding alleged human trafficking. I use the word “allege”; the porcine apparently doesn’t.

          5. The first “case” of human trafficking mentioned in the article is a guy arrested all the way back in January, against whom the charges were dismissed in short order;

          6. In the second case,the guy was convicted. Despite being labeled by the prosecutor as the CEO of a child prostitution business, only two girls, who are sisters, are mentioned in the article about the conviction of the 24 year old African American http://www.tulsaworld.com/article.aspx/CEO_of_child_prostitution_business_convicted_of_sex/20130528_11_0_ATulsa776579?subj=11

          7. the third case had nothing to do with prostitution and involved helping a girl he already knew enter the United States. http://www.tulsaworld.com/site/printerfriendlystory.aspx?articleid=20130710_11_a8_amanha582606

          8. Here is the third alleged perpetrator: http://www.bustedmugshots.com/oklahoma/tulsa/alaina-paige-lamecker/129021571

          Not a single one of the above cases involved even the allegation of involuntary conduct. There does appear to have been one other case, involving a single noncon victim, that, if accurate, would fit the definition of sex slavery. That’s five cases, and at most one real victim of anything nonconsensual in a metropolitan area of 1 million people. Of course, since cops have the hammer of a prostitution conviction to hang over the head of the alleged victim, the credibility of the accusers is questionable. There’s a whistleblower case in Brooklyn now accusing law enforcement of purposely not recording initial meetings with alleged victims in these cases since their story is so likely to change when threatened with conviction.

          The best way for just about any business to operate legitimately is for it to operate above ground – safe and legal, as abortion choice advocates would say. The human trafficking lobby is hard at work pushing draconian punishment for guys who want to pay for sex – you’d think that men were offering money to women for sex everywhere you go by the way they lobby, which is of course not true in this country.

        • What I said was that Tulsa is not a major cosmopolitan hub — as compared to New York City or Los Angeles or even Dallas; and if there is a human trafficking problem in a city so small in the middle of the country, it might well be dwarfed by the problem in larger cities closer to international borders or international traffic. “Only five” cases — or even potential cases — in an area this size in what appears to be a rather brief period of time is certainly a cause for concern, especially since it may well represent just the tip of the iceberg.

  1. This article is nicely-written, and interestingly almost all of the instances of cherry-picking are also supported by the common propagandist’s tool of confirming your audience’s suspicions. I especially enjoy Elder’s deployment of this technique, in which he tells his audience that they are, in fact, being silenced by the anti-free speech liberals, despite the fact that (as you point out) all of the “silenced topics” are frequently discussed and widely believed on the right.

  2. POP,

    I think you did a great summation of how the distortion of scientific knowledge is enabled–largely by jumping to conclusions and using insignificant cherry picked “facts” or observations. Deniers have also been quick to lunge at any kind of minor mistakes made by global warming scientists, and inadvertent errors made by the press.

    The process is like, reading a copy of the complete Encyclopedia Britannica, and upon noticing one typo or spelling error, claiming that this justifies disregarding all of the factual knowledge it contains. The press also, does make minor reporting mistakes which are then seized on as proof of a sinister plot, instead of just factual or printing errors.

    Deniers also make use of our general lack of scientific knowledge to take a scientific fact that seems incredible, and therefore, imply that scientists just can’t be right! Recently in our local paper, a denier mentioned that Earth’s atmosphere contains only about .04% CO2, implying that CO2 therefore cannot possibly be as harmful as climate scientists say. But those of us who were not asleep in our science classes will remember that gas concentrations are usually measured in PPMs, or, parts per million, and that it only takes very slight concentrations to affect the overall climate system of the planet.

    So, cherry picking, wherever it occurs, also fools us by taking advantage of our lack of knowledge in any particular field and using that ignorance to fool us. Consequently it is a shame that the press seems afraid of publishing too many articles from reputable scientists to explain what Climate science really entails, and how deniers are making fools of us in the name of Exxonmobil and other Carbon based industries!

    I agree with everything you said, and I love your way of describing how cherry picking is used. From now on, I will refer to the Kluckers, as the Koo Koo Klan–a very descriptive way to describe their group mentality!

  3. “What I said was that Tulsa is not a major cosmopolitan hub — as compared to New York City or Los Angeles or even Dallas; and if there is a human trafficking problem in a city so small in the middle of the country, it might well be dwarfed by the problem in larger cities closer to international borders or international traffic. “Only five” cases — or even potential cases — in an area this size in what appears to be a rather brief period of time is certainly a cause for concern, especially since it may well represent just the tip of the iceberg.”

    It isn’t and doesn’t. You’re cherry-picking.

    • You’re presuming to know more than even the law enforcement officials themselves know. In any case, if you want to say I’m cherry picking, then all the facts in the world won’t change your mind. What I’m realizing that I probably should have clarified in the article — and I may amend it accordingly — is that cherry picking is practiced to support what is perceived to be an either/or situation. Either global warming is real or it isn’t. Either there is a “liberal bias” to mainstream media or there isn’t. Either Bush won or he didn’t. Either human trafficking occurs or it doesn’t. You have gone off on the tangent of whether the scope of the problem is exaggerated, and I’m not even contesting that claim. Whether one considers it a “problem” depends on what threshold one sets to determine that a problem exists. But in any case, people who campaign to fight the practice can hardly be said to be cherry picking — whether they are “liberal” or “conservative” or Martian.

  4. Just to enter this conversation about human trafficking, couldn’t “consensual” prostitution be considered sex-slave tracking at a local level. I doubt that many prostitutes become members of their “oldest” profession completely voluntarily. Some of them are destitute and without shelter from the streets, when they are supposedly taken under the protective wings of pimps that control everything they do after that point.

    There definitely is not always a voluntary agreement to work for sex, either in reality, or out of the fear of one’s pimp, rather, these are very desperate women who work for a pimp that gives them enough safety and shelter, to become dependent on such “help.”and in that sense, how can they be considered to be voluntarily picking that life-style.

    I would question whether the highly paid and relatively voluntary participation of expensive call girls (or escorts if you will) like the one Eliot Spitzer hooked up with, are really doing anything against their wills, however, on the whole, human trafficking is rampant around the world, and even common prostitutes could be considered to be incarcerated in the cells of their pimps who provide them relatively good health and human comforts on the basis of being completely controlled in every aspect of their lives. Therefore, the greatest portion of sexual solicitations involve a form of involuntary servitude and exploitation of women. Pretending otherwise is probably not really worthwhile, and, Just cherry picking cases which involve call girl etc.cannot deny the horrific reality of those who suffer and do everything asked by their “protectors.”

    • Yes, I think the situation is murkier than it needs to be because “human trafficking” can mean a lot of different things. What it all boils down to, however, is individuals being exploited as sex trade workers.

  5. Far and away most prostitution in the United States now is online, by adult women who do their own thing and certainly do not have their movements controlled and such. Street prostitution is just a tiny fraction of the market. The vast majority are indeed more like Spitzer’s girlfriend, not making nearly that much, but still making around $150/200 hour.of time with a client.

    A lot of people, male and female, do things to make a living they’d rather not do if it were not for the fact that they get paid more to do it.

    • when I was the night time janitor at a bar, and had to be at work at 3:00AM it was definitely something I didn’t want to do, but I doubt that many people are very ecstatic about their jobs even with better hours and better pay. And, being a prostitute because of the pay, does not imply that taking on the job has anything to do with freely choosing that job. The women may (in some cases) think so, but the reality is often that they are under complete control of their pimps and must surrender large parts of their pay to him. Sometimes they are beaten for not fulfilling a quota.

      Porn actresses, usually seem to enjoy sex in their videos and surely this is a better fate than prostitution, but, even when making films, some are surely controlled by dominating male figures—especially when making the creepier kinds of films. But if they truly like good sex and, have the volition to chose which partners they work for, this is obviously a better way to make a living than being under the thumb of someone who considers them a cash investment that MUST pay the dividends he demands.

      I think when it comes to forced sex and human trafficking the moral objections are obvious, but, even porn stars and mistresses, may have to put up with things out of their control—I don’t know. However, it is undoubtedly true that cherry picking individuals and sex industry workers to minimize the incredible abuse that does happen, is definitely no excuse for ignoring the vast majority of participants who really do NOT get to make free choices.

        • Dirkjohanson,

          While I object to your self-righteous use of the word “pigs” to stereotype all policemen, I agree that the idea of making prostitution legal might solve a lot of problems about the crime and the abuse that comes with it. I believe it is already legal in some European countries like (Denmark?) i think.

          legal brothels could be required to pass inspections by the health dept. prostitutes could have regular checkups and health screening, abusive pimps or owners, could be charged with assault for abusing employees, and the women themselves would become taxpayers, and probably would have a pretty generous income as well. But until that day, it is only a dream that sex-trafficking harms no one, or is often voluntary (meaning done without coercion).

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