Martha says, “Have you heard about Fairbanks Christian University and what they teach?”
Jason replies, “I have heard of them, but I do not know much about what they teach. What have you learned?”
Martha replies, “The university appears to offer many good programs for their students. However, the faculty and leadership do not teach traditional Christian doctrine. In fact, many of the things they teach are so obviously wrong that it amazes me that so many people go to their university. If you would like, I can send you an article detailing their false beliefs.”
Jason responds, “Yes, I would like that. Thank you!”
Jason later receives Martha’s email. As he reads the article, it sound convincing. However, knowing the importance of not uncritically accepting what one is told, he decides to do some research and put Martha’s evidence to the test. After he does his homework, he tells his wife:“Having done all this research, I can say for a fact that Martha’s article was quoting the University’s statements out of context and making it appear that they believed things that they might not really believe. I still don’t know whether or not the University believes orthodox or unorthodox doctrines, but I cannot trust an article that does not quote in context and does not fairly evaluate the University’s statements.”
Is Jason’s response justified? Absolutely. It may well be that the University’s faculty and leaders do believe some unorthodox doctrines. It also may be true that the University’s leaders publicly teach those doctrines. However, it is important to accurately and fairly represent what people are saying and teaching. Selectively looking at only specific fragments of an entire speech, pulling these statements out of context, and basing your conclusion on those statements is fallacious.
When responding to someone, it is important to be sure that you are quoting them accurately and in the correct context. If the article Martha sent Jason was selectively picking and choosing what statements to attack, and not fairly considering them in their correct context and not considering the speech in its entirety, those who wrote the article would be engaging in cherry picking.
It may be that these individuals believe something completely different; however, we would not be able to tell simply by reading a biased article that lifted their quotes out of context.
Bob says, “Matthew, what do you think about the topic of the millennial reign of Christ? Is there a position which you agree with or do you think that we cannot know for sure?”
Matthew replies, “Yes I do have a viewpoint. Having studied the three competing positions—pre-millennialism, post-millennialism, and not trying to explain it because we can’t know for sure, I believe that the pre-millennial view is accurate. I have looked into the arguments for the other two views, and I do not find them nearly as convincing as the arguments in favor of pre-millennialism.”
After Bob and Matthew finish talking, Bob goes back to his house and does some research into the subject himself. He discovers that there are alternative views which Matthew did not address. Bob therefore says, “I need to look at these other views and see what they have to say before I can make a firm decision on this issue.”
Is Bob’s decision the correct one? Yes it is. There are multiple positions which Christians adopt on the subject of Christian Eschatology and the millennial reign of Christ. It is therefore important to look at all points of view before arriving at a conclusion. Matthew attempted to list the positions that Christians take on this subject and provide his reasons for accepting one and rejecting the others. However, he did not take all the positions into account, for example, amillennialism. He therefore has committed the cherry picking fallacy. Though this was probably done unintentionally, the fact that people can neglect to consider all points of view is one reason why we need to look at the evidence for ourselves. It is a mistake to accept someone’s assessment of a topic uncritically, especially when there are multiple interpretations and conclusions which people draw on a subject. Let us consider one more example:
Frank says, “I thank you for your explanation of your beliefs; however, I am not interested in accepting Christianity.”
Mary replies, “Why not? I would really like to know what you base your rejection of Christianity on.”
Frank responds, “I base my rejection on the fact that pastors are charlatans and hypocrites, and almost all Christians are hypocrites as well. I could go on and on about how many pastors are just trying to get their flocks to give them all their money and then use it to satisfy their selfish desires instead of glorifying God, which they claim to do. Then there are all the Christians who claim that God requires people to live a godly and morally good life, and then they turn around and do the exact opposite of what they claim to promote. It is for these reasons that I reject Christianity.”
Many replies, “Well, I don’t see how you can be so sure that all pastors and almost all Christians are hypocrites. It may be that all the ones you have encountered are that way. However, I don’t see how you can say that you have met enough to justify such a broad conclusion.”
Mary’s statements are of course correct. It is an example of the cherry picking fallacy to use a limited pool of information, in this case the limited people Frank has encountered, and then draw a conclusion about the entire whole. There are other fallacies in Frank’s statement, but let’s focus on the cherry picking fallacy. Can Frank honestly say that “all” pastors are charlatans and hypocrites? He did not say that some are. Rather, he just says that “pastors are charlatans and hypocrites,” which implies that they all are that way. Has Frank personally met every pastor and discovered that they are as he sees them to be? Of course not. Therefore, his statement is committing the cherry picking fallacy because he is only considering the examples of bad pastors he has encountered and overlooking all the good ones.
His statement that “almost all Christians are hypocrites as well” commits the cherry picking fallacy for the same reason. Is his pool of information large or small? If small and limited, and if he is refusing to consider the possibility that some might not fit his stereotype, he has indeed committed the cherry picking fallacy. Even if it were true that “almost all Christians” had acted hypocritically at some point in their lives, it hardly follows that “almost all Christians” consistently act that way. If Frank’s argument were true, one wonders why he restricts it to just Christianity, as if Christians are the only hypocrites in the world. However, the fact remains that the personal failings of an individual do not invalidate what they say. To think otherwise is to commit another fallacy, namely the Tu Quoque fallacy.
The Bottom Line: Selectively looking at and only considering the evidence which agrees with your beliefs and ideas, while ignoring evidence and alternative points of view which disagree with your beliefs and ideas is a logical fallacy.