The Fallacy Of Cherry Picking

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By aaron

Cherry picking is a logical fallacy in which someone points out evidence that supports their claim while ignoring the evidence against their claim. The name of this fallacy is an allusion to the act of picking cherries off a tree, in which you only take the good fruits while leaving the bad ones behind.

Cherry picking can either be intentional or unintentional. A case where it might be intentional is when someone commits an act known as “quote mining”, in which they pull out selected quotes from a text and present those quotes out of context, giving the impression that those quotes support their argument when in fact the text as a whole either does not support or even refutes their argument.

If you have ever seen the movie Iron Man 2, you have seen a great example of quote mining and cherry picking. Near the beginning of the movie, there is a scene in which Tony Stark is testifying before Congress on the safety of his Iron Man weapons. As a witness, the Congressman calls Lt. Col. James Rhodes, who has prepared a report on the risks and benefits of the Iron Man weapon. Despite the fact that his report was hundreds of pages long and presented an overall favorable view of Iron Man, the Congressman only allows him to read one small paragraph that makes Iron Man look like a public threat that should be stopped. By only presenting one paragraph from a massive report, the Congressman is guilty of quote mining, which is a form of cherry picking.

Another example of cherry picking can be seen in real life political debates, where people often abuse data to support their claim. Consider the unemployment numbers used to both attack and defend political candidates. Someone can easily find economic data that reflects positively or negatively on a president just by cherry-picking the start and end points of that data. For instance, if you want to make a president look good, you can choose a starting point when unemployment was very high and an end point when unemployment was very low, giving the impression that the president was good for the economy. But you can make that same president look bad by presenting unemployment data that starts when unemployment was low and ending when it was very high, giving the impression that the president was bad for job growth. Both tactics are used quite frequently, often accompanied by some fluffy justification for why those start and end points where chosen.

The unemployment example demonstrates one of the hazards of cherry picking. Often, the data presented is valid data that has been collected using sound methods. But by misusing or misunderstanding that data, someone can either intentionally or unintentionally introduce fallacies into their argument even when the data itself is fine. Good data is just one piece of a sound argument; the presentation and analysis of that data also must be honest and reliable.

In addition to quote mining and poor data usage, another form of cherry picking consists not of the evidence someone uses, but rather, the points they decide to respond to. Rather than responding to an argument in its entirety, people often cherry-pick individual points that are easy to refute, then present counter arguments to those select points to give the impression of refuting the whole argument.

At a broader scale, cherry picking is somewhat interesting because while it is a fallacy in itself, a lot of other fallacies are also forms of cherry picking. For instance, the anecdotal fallacy is often a form of cherry picking. If you have ever seen a website offering customer testimonials, you've seen this fallacy in action. Even if most people hate a product or website, the person selling it can cherry pick four or five positive reviews to display on their homepage while ignoring all of the negative reviews.

Another fallacy that sometimes overlaps with cherry picking is the straw man fallacy, in which someone responds to a weak version of an argument that is easier to refute. This is a form of cherry picking because it often consists of choosing people who do a poor job of defending a viewpoint, then using that to “shoot down” the entire viewpoint. In this case, the arguer cherrypicks the weakest defender of a viewpoint rather than responding to the viewpoint as a whole.

Finally, the Texas sharpshooter fallacy is also a form of cherry picking. The Texas sharpshooter fallacy is when someone collects data before specifying the objectives of that data, then circles a target around the handful of data points that support their claim. The Texas sharpshooter fallacy is very similar to cherry picking because they both consist of ignoring data that disagrees with a viewpoint. With so many negative examples of cherry picking, it is easy to become judgmental of those who commit the fallacy, and even explain their fallacy as a lack of intelligence, but it is rarely that simple.

Cherry picking is the result of a cognitive bias called confirmation bias. Psychological research has shown that we all have a natural tendency to examine issues from our own preexisting viewpoints rather than from an open minded and neutral position. This is a crucial point to consider, because it means that cherry picking is often unintentional, and all of us are all vulnerable to it. But as with most logical fallacies, simply knowing about it can go a long way toward preventing it. #logic #skepticism #critical thinking #fallacy #fallacies

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