Logical Theology

…considered thoughts and opinions

Archive for the month “September, 2012”

Cherry Picking

Cherry picking is a logical fallacy in which an individual presents a one-sided argument, overlooking and possibly ignoring competing arguments, in a situation where objectivity should be required.

There are certain cases in which it is perfectly fine to present a one-sided argument, such as in advertising. In advertising a product, a company does not need to discuss the competing products.  All they need to do is to present you with the reasons why you should purchase and consume their product. However, in many situations, it is fallacious to present a one-sided argument.  This is particularly true in matters of science, news, personal faith and beliefs.  If you are attempting to convince someone that something they believe is mistaken and that what you believe is correct, you need to fairly evaluate the arguments on all sides of the debate.  Neglecting or refusing to do so is fallacious.

To better see how someone can commit this particular fallacy, consider the following examples:

Example 1:

Bob says, “In my opinion, Libertarians have some serious problems with their beliefs.”

Jason replies, “What do you find problematic with their beliefs?”

Bob responds, “For starters, they support legalizing drugs including pot.  In my opinion, anyone who would want to completely legalize all drugs does not realize the dangers that would pose to society.”

How has Bob committed the cherry picking fallacy?  His response assumes two things about Libertarians: 1) that they all want to legalize marijuana and 2) that they all support legalization of “all drugs.”  This is in fact false.  It may be that the Libertarian Party itself supports the legalization of marijuana and other drugs.  However, Bob did not direct his statements to the Libertarian Party but to “Libertarians.”  The problem here is that not all Libertarians agree on the same issues; for example, some only support the legalization of marijuana but not other drugs. Therefore, Bob’s argument is overlooking important evidence that has resulted in him committing the cherry picking fallacy.  It is important to make sure that we are considering all the available evidence before we draw our conclusions.  Bob probably was not aware that he was committing this fallacy, which shows that the fallacy can be committed inadvertently.  All the more reason to be sure we have taken all the available evidence into consideration.  Consider another example of this fallacy:

Example 2:

Jennifer says, “A few days ago there was a protest that got very violent.  Cars were burned, windows were broken, and the police were assaulted by the protestors.  The police rightly responded by arresting over two hundred protestors and putting an end to the disorder.  Frankly, I am tired of these protestors behaving this way and something needs to be done to stop it.”

Jill replies, “I think you are overlooking something important.  Virtually all of the protestors were nonviolent and were not causing any trouble.  It was only a select few individuals who broke windows, burned cars, and assaulted the police.  Instead of arresting these few individuals, the police used the incident to arrest hundreds of innocent protestors en masse and disperse the rest.  So the police grossly over-responded to the few acts of violence. You really need to have all the information before you make your statements.”

If what Jill said is true, Jennifer’s statements were hasty and demonstrated a lack of information about the subject under discussion.  It is very important to possess all the relevant information before drawing a conclusion.  Perhaps Jennifer made her mistake because she watched a slanted news program or read a biased news article about the protest.  This is why it is important to seek out more than one single source of information and to rely on trusted sources to give you an unbiased presentation of the evidence.  Not doing so can cause you to accidentally commit the cherry picking fallacy.  Cherry picking fallacies can be committed deliberately, as with the news reports that Jennifer possibly read.  To better see this, consider another example:

Example 3:

Mitch has published a paper in a scientific journal about the number of people who believe that advanced alien life exists on other planets.  In the paper, Mitch says, “Our scientific survey has demonstrated that over 35% of people within the United States believe that advanced alien life exists on other planets.”

When Jason reads Mitch’s article, he turns to his wife and says, “I am a good friend with someone who worked on Mitch’s team.  She told me that Mitch only polled 200 individuals and that most of them were science fiction fans.  Therefore, I think that Mitch’s results are clearly biased.”

If what Jason says is true, then Mitch’s finding are suspect and do not provide enough evidence to support his conclusion.  The fact that he polled mostly science fiction fans means that  his results are more likely to be biased, due to the fact that science fiction fans probably believe in advanced alien life more than the average person.  Even if he did not poll mostly science fiction fans, the pool was limited to only 200 people.  Are the opinions of 200 people really enough to determine what the range of opinion is within the entire United States?  Obviously, Mitch’s article has committed the cherry picking fallacy.

The Bottom Line: Selectively looking at and considering only one side of an argument, or selectively considering only the data that agrees with your opinion, while failing to recognize and evaluate competing points of view, is a logical fallacy.  The fallacy may be committed either deliberately or accidentally, but it is the same mistake either way.

The Gambler’s Fallacy Part 2

Now that we better understand the Gambler’s fallacy, let us see how this fallacy can be committed within Christian discourse:

Example 1:

Carissa says, “Our church is about to hire a new pastor and he is going to be just the person our church needs.”

Peter asks, “How do you know that he will be the right pastor for our church? Does his character, beliefs, and personal life demonstrate that he will be a good, responsible and successful pastor?”

Carissa replies, “I do not know anything about his personal beliefs. However, our church’s last three pastors were all dismissed for personal misconduct. After having chosen three unsuitable pastors in a row, it is very likely that our new pastor will be a good one.”

Peter responds, “But how can you be sure the choice will good?”

Carissa responds, “Because our church has surely learned its lesson and will get it right this time.”

If only this were always the case. Often, people and churches continue to make the same mistakes because they do not correct the problems that caused them in the first place. For example, suppose the reason the church has hired poor pastors the last three times is because they are only looking at the doctrine the individual believes. They are not evaluating his personal life at all or only superficially. If only superficially, they will not be spending enough time to allow them to evaluate what kind of an individual the person actually is. Therefore, the fact that the church got its last three choices wrong does not automatically mean their next choice will be right. To think otherwise is to assume that making multiple wrong choices necessarily makes a right choice more likely, which is fallacious. Upon hearing this, Carissa might say that she was not talking about the church’s ability to select a good individual, but rather, she was arguing that probability-wise, after three bad pastors, the odds of getting a good one are greater.  However, this is also a Gambler’s fallacy, as the fact that the three last pastors were bad does not make it more likely that the fourth pastor will be good.

Now consider another example which shows how easy it is to commit the Gambler’s fallacy:

Example 2:

Michael says, “My friend Gloria has been going to school for a few semesters and has had to change a number of her beliefs in response to what she has been learning. It has been a difficult process for her, but I believe it to be good.”

Rachel says, “While I agree that learning new material is very good, how do you know that what the school is teaching her is correct?”

Michael responds, “There are two reasons I know this: First, the school has had a number of problems which it needed to overcome. In the past, the school used to teach many unscriptural doctrines, but they appear to have repudiated them.  In addition, the past leaders of the school said and did some very reprehensible things, but, they now have new leadership. Secondly, the school is accredited and gets very good reviews from former students.”

Rachel replies, “I heard that the school lost its accreditation status a few times in the past due to the odd things it was teaching. Considering the school’s checkered past, how do we know that it really has changed and is not just pretending to have changed so that it gets its accredited status back? After all, perhaps the people who run the school still believe the same things, but keep it under the radar to avoid criticism.”

Michael responds, “That really cannot be the case. Since the school has lost its accreditation status multiple times, it is unreasonable to think that they could keep their beliefs hidden. After all, given everything that has happened, they surely will not make the same mistakes again.”

Michael’s responses might seem good, but in reality he has committed the Gambler’s fallacy. It would be a mistake to think that because the school has gone through many problems and many bad leaders, it is more likely to correct its mistakes. It may well be that the school will take positive action. However, this would be because the school’s leadership saw the error of their ways and decided to change. It would not be solely because they made bad choices. Making multiple bad choices and decisions does not automatically mean that one is more likely to make a subsequent right choice, as there are multiple other factors to consider.

Thinking otherwise is to commit the Gambler’s fallacy. For example, if the school’s leaders are not open to change, then they will continue to make the same mistakes. Being willing to change is a necessary factor and not everyone is willing.  So considering the school’s history, the question of whether or not the university really is open to change is a valid question.

In addition, assuming that after losing their accreditation status multiple times, the school is due to get it right and keep it this time is also a Gambler’s fallacy. It may well be that the school will keep their status. However, this would be due to the school either really changing or being able to hide their beliefs and cover up their mistakes. It would not be because of the number of times the school lost it in the past. That fact alone does not necessarily increase the likelihood that the school will keep its accredited status this time.

The Bottom Line: A run of seemingly unlikely negative or positive, or lucky/unlucky events does not automatically mean that the opposite event is more likely to occur. Believing otherwise is a logical fallacy.

Post Navigation