Every day, our newsfeeds are overloaded with messages, articles, and posts. A lot of us are looking for ways to filter all the noise and find something eye-catching to read. One of the worst ways we can get misled is by cherry picking a post in order to shape an opinion about it, this, in turn, is the cherry picking fallacy.

cherry picking fallacy

What is cherry picking?

Cherry picking is the practice of isolating a single example from a body of work and then using it to support a desired conclusion or argument. Cherry picking is usually defined as the selection of parts (or “cherry”) from an entire body. This can be done in many ways, from the small act of cutting and pasting an essential piece from one post or article to a different one, to making a careful selection based on word choice, emphasis, and tone.

How can you spot a cherry picking fallacy?

Cherry picking is present in many different forms of communication, and everyone does it at one time or another.

Here are some examples:

Joanne wants to convince her brother Mike that she does not neglect her children. To do so, she wants to share an article entitled “The 16 best excuses for being late”. In the article, number 6 says “I was stuck in traffic”. Joanne cuts and pastes this sentence to her Facebook post, hoping it would persuade Mike that she is not late for work every day.

Natalie wants to convince her boyfriend Max that she is a great candidate for the role as his partner. She knows that Max likes to keep his ties neat so Natalie points out one of his ties and says “I’m so glad I’m dating you. Check out how neatly I folded this hand-knitted tie – you’d be amazed how many of your ties look like that!” She is actually commenting on Max’s willingness to keep his ties neat, and not on his ability as a man.

Both Joanne and Natalie cut and paste the first sentence of the article (that gives Joanne a perfect opportunity to show off her knowledge of all things cute) into their posts without thinking about the context or what they are doing.

How can you avoid being misled by cherry picking?

You can avoid giving legitimacy to false ideas and bad arguments by using critical thinking. Remember to pay attention to what is actually being said, including the examples, implications and context of what is being said. Just because something is shared or trending does not mean it is credible or true.

Here are some guidelines on how not to be misled by cherry picking:

Make sure you have an idea of what a post really says before you share it. If you have to read it several times to understand what the post is saying, then reach out for an alternative source that can bring more clarity and substance to the issue said. As always, a little perspective helps very much.

Most importantly: when a post is clearly meant to shock or scare, read it with a grain of salt. The emotion in the way the post was written might not have anything to do with what it is actually saying.

After all, if you think something is too good to be true, it probably is.

How to refute someone when they are using cherry picking

If someone is trying to persuade you by using cherry picking, here are some good ways of refuting them –

Be patient and give your conversational partner time to explain their point (assuming they don’t cut you off).

Ask clarifying questions that will help you understand what the person is trying to say.

One of the best ways to refute an argument is by putting the cherry picking fallacy to an end. This will work if you are in a discussion and you are trying to talk about a given issue with your interlocutor. It is important that you challenge the idea directly using facts instead of making statements on your own. The trick is to use “And here” or “But” at the end of your reply.

So, if you are debating about the need for accountability in the private sector, you can give an example of how an accountable organization treats their mistakes and re-victimizes the victims.

e.g. If you are debating about the need for accountability in the private sector, you can give an example of how an accountable organization treats their mistakes and re-victimizes the victims.

It is also important to understand the rhetorical technique of cherry picking to be able to find it and use it for your own purposes. One of the reasons why a lot of people fall for this fallacy is because they don’t know when or how it is being used. It isn’t just about checking facts, although that is always important, but also about studying how ideas are being put together.

Why do people use the cherry picking fallacy

Cherry picking is an easy way to make a point without giving the facts in a way that is coherent and follows a logical line of thinking. It is not unknown for people to put quotes out of context, and misquote evidence presented in other studies. When they are presented with the facts, there can be confusion because what is said by someone on one occasion may not be the same as what they say on another.

Another reason for cherry picking is that it has become a meme or common joke about social media. People have been sharing memes of their friends who are being very selective about what they like and share, or someone is called out for posting “girly girl” memes on a “man cave” page. People can use this to poke fun at situations where the truth isn’t important, as long as people get a laugh out of it.

When does cherry picking work?

Cherry picking can work the same way as any other fallacy, such as ‘ad hominem’ or ‘straw man’, where it gives a person more authority than they deserve. When it comes to a discussion about community services, for example, it is easy to see how people can pick and choose their words rather than give you the facts. This is also used when dealing with facts about past presidents or other people, instead of providing the facts.

An interesting example in this regard is the movie Moneyball, which feature Billy Beane, a baseball manager who knows how to use statistics and makes a success of his team. He gets under the skin of some of his players by not giving them as much credit as they deserve and using statistics to find potential stars. A lot of the time, however, he has to admit when his statistics aren’t working and listen to the players.

When we look at the issue of choosing which facts are useful and which are useless, we can see that it is a form of cherry picking that can work in a very short-term way. As long as something like Moneyball is entertaining, we probably won’t think too much about what kind of conclusions might be drawn from it.

Conclusion

One of the best ways to avoid being misled by cherry-picking is to question all of the facts and figures you read. If you see a post that tells you something shocking or makes a big deal about an issue, consider all of the different sides to it before posting it yourself. At the end of the day, if people are sharing news that may not be true, then they will probably share anything else you like as well.

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