Selectivity (Cherry Picking)

For our next installment of the big five tactics in denialism we’ll discuss the tactic of selectivity, or cherry-picking of data.

Denialists tend to cite single papers supporting their idea (often you have to squint to see how it supports their argument). Similarly they dig up discredited or flawed papers either to suggest they are supported by the scientific literature, or to disparage a field making it appear the science is based on weak research. Quote mining is also an example of “selective” argument, by using a statement out of context, just like using papers or data out of context, they are able to sow confusion. Here at denialism blog we’ll use the cherries to denote the presence of selectivity in a denialist screed.


Examples abound. Such as when HIV/AIDS denialists harp about Gallo fudging the initial identification of HIV (a famous dispute about whether or not he stole Montagnier’s virus) to suggest the virus was never actually identified or that the field rests on a weak foundation. Jonathan Wells likes to harp endlessly about Haeckels’ embryos to suggest that the tens of thousands of other papers on the subject of evolution, and the entire basis of genetics, biology and biochemistry are wrong.

One of the main reasons this is such an effective tactic to use on science is that when something is shown to be incorrect, we can’t “purge” the literature so the bad papers stay there forever. Only when a paper is retracted is the literature actually restored, and there’s a lot of research and researchers that got things wrong on the way to figuring out a problem. It’s really just the nature of research, we make mistakes, but the self-correcting nature of science helps get us incrementally closer to some form of scientific truth. It is up to the individual researcher to read and quote more than the papers that support their foregone conclusion, as one has to develop theories that effectively synthesize all the data and represent an understanding of an entire field, not just quote the data one likes.

Then there is the issue of selective quotation of perfectly good science or scientists. For example, see our post on how the Family Research council misrepresents data on contraception to promote their political agenda. Talk Origins has an entire quote-mine project devoted to documenting how creationists misrepresent scientists to advance their agenda.

This tendency towards quote-mining and misrepresentation of science is really the clearest proof of the dishonesty inherent in denialist tactics (with the possible exception in the case of Intelligent Design Creationism of the wedge document – but an internal statement of denialists’ goals is usually hard to come by). Selectivity is exceedingly common, and proof that many denialists aren’t just intellectually, but morally bankrupt.


11 responses to “Selectivity (Cherry Picking)”

  1. Guitar Eddie

    Mr. Hoofnagle,

    I was wondering – What, in your opinion, is the payoff of people becoming denialists and going through these ultimately futile machinations? Why do they seem to have this need to discredit established scientific theory?

    Surely they must know (intuitively, at least)it hurts them as well as others.


  2. It depends. For cranks it’s the ability to protect (and ideally spread) your “overvalued idea”. That is the superiority of you race, religion, intellect, crazy theory about the universe, whatever.

    For concerted denialist campaigns, like the famous tobacco company campaigns to distort the science linking cigarettes to cancer, or the FRC link above and their goal of spreading their religion disguised as family values, it’s pretty clear what the advantage is. You’ve got to get people to believe something very important to you, and the science is against you. What do you do? You make up conspiracy theories, use data selectively to suggest the science is wrong, hire some BS expert to spout your version of the truth, etc.

    It’s highly profitable or highly effective for a number of groups to use these tactics. They work. It’s sad.

    You know, that FRC link is too good to suffer alone in this post. I’m going to have to mainpage it.

  3. Thanks for the plug for the Quote Mine Project.

    If anyone has any examples of creationist quote mines of scientists that misrepresent the ideas or intent of the author, I’d be interested in hearing about them, especially if you can document just how the quote is deceptive. We do try to concentrate on more widely used quotes and like to give at least three examples of the use of them on the web, if possible. But we make exceptions for quote mines used by the “big guys,” like the Discovery Institute, Answers in Genesis or Harun Yahya.

    If you’d like to get your name in the QMP, feel free to write up an entry (it would be best to peruse some of the later entries to get an idea of our style).

    In any event, you can contact me at catshark101 AT yahoo DOT com.

  4. Andy Vance

    Hey Mark, some people have mentioned having troubles with the RSS feed. I think I found the problem: The auto subscribe function in Firefox and Explorer is picking up (which returns a 404 error), but the working feed (as published on ScienceBlogs’ feed page) is

  5. I forwarded your comment on to our tech guy. For now people just shouldn’t select atom, and instead select RSS 2.0.

  6. For concerted denialist campaigns, like the famous tobacco company campaigns to distort the science linking cigarettes to cancer…

    When was this?

    It takes a while before scientific results can be verified. In the early stages of the research, there was genuine uncertainty as to whether the correlations were spurious.

  7. @Joseph, no they knew pretty early on about the risks. Here’s a great quote from the late 60s, long after the risks were known:

    Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the “body of fact” that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy�with the general public the consensus is that cigarettes are in some way harmful to the health. If we are successful in establishing a controversy at the public level, then there is an opportunity to put across the real facts about smoking and health.

    Brown & Williamson, Smoking and Health Proposal (1969), available at

  8. Joseph, George Monbiot also has a great article suggesting that the tobacco companies really are responsible for the current culture of organized denialism. check it out here.

  9. MarkH,

    Cherry-picking, eh? Ever spent any time over at Climate Audit?

  10. Certainly, they’re on my list of denialists.

    I’ll start introducing them next week in chunks.

  11. CTPatriot

    Thanks for the link to your cherry picking data article. It is well done and describes perfectly the behavior of the chronic Lyme denialists I wrote about.

    If you were attempting to imply that the links I sent were cherry picking, you are absolutely wrong. I was asked to provide references that supported my stance and I did so. Those who believe chronic Lyme is real actually are far more inclusive and expansive in their review of the research. We can certainly have legitimate arguments over the validity of some of it, but so could we have those same arguments over the validity of the much narrower band of research looked at by the IDSA. If anyone has done the cherry picking, I promise you, it is they.

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