Logical Theology

…considered thoughts and opinions

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.

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