Menckens Ghost

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Cherry Pickers on the Left and Right

The American cherry-picking industry is thriving—not the industry that sells the small, round, red fruit with the stone inside, but the industry that deals in cherry-picked news and information about world affairs and domestic politics.

Cherry-picking is not fake news per se, because the information that is picked is often factual and not fake.  Nor is it necessarily the result of a cognitive bias or preconceived notions on the part of the cherry pickers.  Sometimes it's just due to plain ole ignorance, usually an ignorance of history, economics or statistics.  Other times, it's the result of laziness or time constraints, as is the case of reporters who don't do enough digging due to tight deadlines and thus simply regurgitate what other cherry pickers have told them.

The industry of cherry pickers is huge.  It includes academia, think tanks, government, political parties, the traditional and nontraditional media, and the reputable and disreputable media.  Almost all of them pick statistics, anecdotes, narratives, and historical examples that match their ideology, worldview, partisanship, political agendas, self-interest, or limited knowledge or time.

The problem is so widespread that I find it difficult to read a newspaper, watch TV news, listen to talk radio, or read scholarly studies and think-tank reports without getting a pit in my stomach.

You'd be right to say that this observation is far from profound—that it's always been this way.  Cherry-picking has been going on ever since hominoids learned to speak while sitting around the campfire in animal skins, telling whoppers as they picked fleas off of each other and emitted pheromones to attract the opposite sex.

But aren't we supposed to be much more educated and sophisticated than our knuckle-dragging ancestors?  We certainly smell better, have fewer fleas, and have more ways of attracting the opposite sex.  Then why does it seem that we haven't advanced at all in the quality of information that we disseminate and consume? 

At the risk of sounding simplistic, perhaps the answer is that K-12 schools and colleges don't teach students how to be discerning consumers of news and information, so that they aren't bamboozled and brainwashed for the rest of their lives.  Such a course would no doubt be the most popular course in the curriculum.  On the other hand, it is doubtful that teachers and professors could be trusted to not engage in cherry-picking of their own when giving examples of cherry-picking.  After all, one of the most egregious examples of cherry-picking is what the education establishment conveys about education spending.

It's not that their statistics on absolute teacher pay and state rankings of per-student spending are wrong.  It's that the stats aren't adjusted for the fact that teachers work fewer hours than many other occupations and have better medical insurance, sick-pay, pensions, and job security than most other occupations.

Likewise, rankings of states on their school spending do not take into account differences in cost of living and personal incomes between states.  Reporters and editors can't be so ignorant as to not know this, so what keeps them from reporting the full story?  I have my own ideas, but you might find it more interesting if you were to ask them without being insulting and see what they say.  It's easy to do, as their email addresses are usually published.

Then there is the statistical malpractice.  In states that are below-average in school spending, teacher unions, school board associations, parent-teacher associations, and the media use this fact as proof that school spending should be increased.  Of course, unless the standard deviation is zero, there always will be states below average, regardless of increases in spending.

The malpractice is just as egregious when test scores are compared between states without adjusting the rankings for the racial and ethnic composition of the student population. This makes states like my home state of Arizona look terrible compared to states like Minnesota and Vermont, two states that, unlike Arizona, don't have a high percentage of recent immigrants from Mexico or of Native Americans—two groups that have markedly lower test scores than whites for a variety of socioeconomic reasons having nothing to do with innate intelligence.     

It's a similar story with the media coverage of pay discrepancies between women and men and with the popular narrative that women have been one-down historically in society and continue to be.

The coverage of pay usually cites a cherry-picked fact:  that pay for women is 82% to 85% of the pay for men, on average.  But it doesn't continue with other facts, such as women work fewer hours than men, interrupt their careers more often than men, and tend to avoid dangerous, dirty, outdoor jobs that often pay more than indoor administrative jobs.   

In terms of being one-down, only a fool would claim that women haven't faced discrimination and haven't been sexually harassed or worse by male jerks.  These are facts, and they are reported with regularity.  But other facts that tell the other side of the story are rarely discussed, including the fact that men have died and been maimed in wars in far, far greater numbers than women, or the fact that men have died and been injured in workplace accidents in far, far greater numbers than women, or the fact that men have significantly lower life expectancy and a significantly higher suicide rate than women, or the fact that men have lower college graduation rates than women.

Cherry-picking also is common in the coverage of world affairs.  Take the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.  Each side cherry-picks historical events that serve to portray themselves as beleaguered people who have suffered from terrorism and injustice by the other side.  For example, many pro-Israel commentators use the 1947 resolution of the United Nations establishing the State of Israel as evidence that Israel is a legitimate nation and that Palestinian terrorism and Arab attacks that followed were thus unwarranted and in violation of international law.  Pro-Palestine commentators, on the other hand, cite the fact that the United States had steamrolled the 1947 vote and that it only passed because there were so many abstentions.  The pro-Palestine side also cites selected facts about Jewish terrorism against both Palestinians and the British prior to 1947, and about Britain deceiving Palestinians in its secret support of Zionism and about lying to Arabs about independence.        

Each side and their allies spit cherry seeds at the other side and their allies without changing anyone's opinion.  It would be more honest if each side said to the other side:  Screw you!  Whoever is right or wrong, we don't like you and never will. Of course, because of international and domestic politics, as well as the need of each side to feel morally superior, this sentiment will never be expressed.  Instead, everyone continues the cherry-picking, finding facts to support their cause and overlooking facts that don't.

My fellow libertarians like to think of themselves as sticking with facts, logic and reason, unlike liberals and conservatives.  But they (and I) are also good at cherry-picking and not telling the whole story. For example, in their antipathy for big government and its interference with markets, libertarians cite facts about government excesses during the Progressive Era without putting the era in the context of history.  What came before the Progressive Era were the excesses of the Gilded Age, the monopolistic trusts, the horrible working conditions in factories and mines, the tainted food supply, and the huge chasm in income between the top and bottom. 

Chances are, I'll be accused of cherry-picking for not mentioning what life was like prior to not only the Gilded Age and monopolistic trusts but also the Industrial Revolution.  Fair enough.  So let me be clear:  Life sucked living in a sod cabin, being in darkness at night except for the flickering of a candle, walking all day behind a plow and mule as men used to do, and toiling all day preserving food, preparing meals, scrubbing clothes, and nursing children as women used to do. 

By cherry-picking certain facts, one can come to the conclusion that life would be better if capitalism and markets were not restrained by government.  By cherry-picking other facts, one can come to the conclusion that life would be worse in the absence of governmental restraints on capitalism and markets.  By reading history without cherry-picking, one can conclude that the economy (and human nature) is much more complicated and nuanced than what Ayn Rand wrote in Atlas Shrugged or what Karl Marx wrote in Das Kapital or what Bernie Sanders says in his stump speeches.

It's the same with just about any controversial subject:  the less cherry-picking, the more informed and thoughtful the populace—and perhaps the less divisiveness and extremism.

Maybe George Washington understood this.  Maybe that's why he chopped down the cherry tree.

He did do that, didn't he?

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