Learning the news: Cherry picking should be left in the orchard

Cherry picking data is one of the oldest tricks in the book and media literate people should never fall for it, writes Roger Plothow.

A recent letter to the editor in the Post Register provides an excellent example of how cherry-picking information can mislead the reader and result in false conclusions among people who don’t dig a little deeper when presented with “facts.”

Charles Allen challenged an Associated Press story headlined, “Climate change costing billions,” by citing two conclusions from a 222-page study. I’m grateful to Allen for providing the source of his information, because it allowed me to read it for myself.

For starters, here’s a portion of the summary from the report of the Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change:

“‘The Physical Science Basis’ presents clear and robust conclusions in a global assessment of climate change science— not the least of which is that the science now shows with 95 percent certainty that human activity is the dominant cause of observed warming since the mid-20th century.”

The report confirms that “warming in the climate system is unequivocal, with many of the observed changes unprecedented over decades to millennia: warming of the atmosphere and the ocean, diminishing snow and ice, rising sea levels and increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases. Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850. These and other findings confirm and enhance our scientific understanding of the climate system and the role of greenhouse gas emissions; as such, the report demands the urgent attention of both policymakers and the general public.”

Well. That sounds very different than Allen’s claim that current claims about the dangers of climate change isn’t supported by science. What Allen did is classic – he cherry-picked a couple of bullet points from a four-year-old paper that gave the appearance of supporting his specious claim. It’s a clever ploy, but media-literate people don’t fall for it.

The research cited overwhelmingly supports the conclusions of the news article he tried to debunk, and I suspect Allen knows that. He also probably knows that very few people will actually read the research to which he referred and assume he knows what he’s talking about.

Media literacy isn’t a passive business. It requires active engagement of the information consumer. I appreciate that Allen chose not to just accept the Associated Press story as factual. Where he goes badly wrong is in using two carefully chosen bits from a particular document to create the appearance that he’s debunked the story.

It’s a common and effective tactic, which is why information consumers must be on their guard.

Let’s face it, dear reader. We are in deep waters and getting through them requires more effort than ever. We must ask ourselves – are we up to the effort, or would we prefer to just wait until we find information that confirms our pre-existing point of view? I propose the idea that journalism – real journalism, based on a proven and solid set of principles – is a potential safe harbor. People who buy the idea that journalists are the enemy, well, few of them are reading this column.

Roger Plothow is editor and publisher of the Post Register. This is part of a weekly year-long series on media literacy.