Propaganda Prop # 7: 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.