Partial truths

Why the presence of the truth is different from the presence of the whole truth.

Cherry-picking is the selection of a biased sampling of facts, to support one's arguments, and the simultanseous suppression of facts that contradict one's position.

We'll take a closer look at what it is, and how it relates to religion.
What it is.
Let's look at an analogy to the media and advertising.

We're bombarded by messages, often one-liners, which make various claims, and they're sometimes accompanied by 'facts' that appear to support the claim being made.

As we all know well, the trouble is that advertisers can cherry-pick evidence from a large database of facts, present only the facts that support their message, and exclude the ones that don't.

People can do this for virtually any message they want. There may be facts in favour, and facts against.

Imagine that there're two opposing views on some matter- arguments A and B. Let's say that argument A is widely supported by many studies, by numerous facts, and only challenged by a few studies that offer a few facts.

(Note: Even when something is true, if there're many studies carried out on it, it's very likely that a small fraction of them will find the opposite effect to that predicted, or find no effect. This is normal and to be expected- it doesn't necessarily mean that the hypothesis is false. It just shows that there's variability in the way the studies are carried out. The key factor we're interested in here is the average finding across a multitude of studies.)

Argument B, in contrast, is discredited by numerous studies and there's an abundance of evidence against it, and only a tiny amount for it. People who are acquainted with the whole body of literature would vote for argument A over B.

However, a listener who's not familiar with all the arguments and studies is at the mercy of those who are claim to be experts and present a summary of the facts. If the person making the claim is being honest and fair, then a representative sample of facts is presented, so that listeners have a good idea of whether the claim is indeed widely-supported by the majority of the evidence, or otherwise.

If the 'expert' has vested interests, then a skewed selection of facts is offered, and listeners don't get to hear the full story. This proponent of misinformation picks the few available studies in support of argument B, and the few that appear to contradict A. This is known as ‘cherry picking’- when you choose to present examples that support your argument and leave out those that don’t.
When examples don't help much.
Basically, it's really tough for listeners to figure out whether the selection of facts they're hearing is representative of the truth or not. So remember: just because the facts being presented are perfectly true and verifiable, doesn't mean that the original claim is true- you have to have an understanding of what evidence is being left out.

Often, intricate details are most convincing when you're already quite familiar with the overarching logic behind an argument- when you have an existent framework into which you can fit such knowledge.

Otherwise, it doesn't stick- you don't know what to believe, because even if the facts are accurate, you don't know whether you're being presented with a good sampling of facts. Readers end up rejecting the argument, because it doesn't address the topic at a high-enough scale.

How this relates to religion.
Religious books and sites often present several feel-good stories about people overcoming difficulties and giving the glory to God. These are uplifting, courageous, and heart-warming, especially when you know the individuals personally.

Some describe miraculous events, or show people overcoming the odds. Most are about simple but touching events that happen to ordinary people with ordinary lives, who have found themselves touched by God’s grace.

It’s hard to remember, when reading such beautiful stories, that they represent a small sample of life’s experiences, and that the rest of the time, life is more mundane or unpleasant.

It’s even harder to remember that people the world over, regardless of their religious beliefs, experience fantastic events, as well as boring, or difficult experiences, in the same proportion.

We all go through highs and lows in life, as human beings. However, believers choose to attribute these events to God. Positive events are considered blessings; negative events are tests of faith.
Are believers better off than atheists?
There are two main factors to consider here:
  1. Any given individual can be either a believer or a non-believer.

  2. Events can be roughly classified as having a positive outcome, overall, or a negative outcome.
The anecdotes presented in religious materials only describe events that occur to believers, and only those that ultimately give the glory to God and have positive outcomes.

They exclude instances of events that occur to believers and are detrimental, events that occur to non-believers and are beneficial, and events that occur to non-believers and are detrimental.

Table 1: Event outcomes and the nature of one's belief
Event outcome
Positive Negative
Religious beliefs Believer Proportion of positive events in a believer's life (1,1) Proportion of negative events in a believer's life (0,1)
Atheist Proportion of positive events in a non-believer's life (1,0) Proportion of negative events in a non-believer's life (0,0)

By focusing on just one quadrant (1,1), religious texts make it seem as though all positive events are created by God, and targeted at believers.

They assume that:
  • The porportion of events in quadrant (1,1) is higher than that in (1,0) (good things happen more often to believers than non-believers), and that

  • The porportion of events in (0,1) is lower than that in (0,0) (bad things happen less often to believers than non-believers).
In reality, the ratio of positive to negative experiences is no different between believers and non-believers, and the only thing that characterises believers from the rest is the fact that they believe in God, not that God actually exists and looks after them.
Are believers from particular group your better off than believers from other groups or other religions?
Furthermore, as a follower of God, you'd have to believe that these efforts are focused squarely on believers from your particular religion.

The table should look more like this:

Table 2: Event outcomes and the specific nature of one's belief
Event outcome
Positive Negative
Religious beliefs Believer from your religious group Proportion of positive events in a true believer's life (1,1) Proportion of negative events in a true believer's life (0,1)
Believer from all other religious groups, or Atheist Proportion of positive events in the life of a false believer/ a non-believer (1,0) Proportion of negative events in the life of a false believer/ a non-believer (0,0)

Anecdotal evidence does not convey a balanced view of the overall picture- instead, it selects the bits that seem to justify certain beliefs, and ignores contradictory and challenging evidence.

Back to the lovely people in the case studies we hear about. They might be absolutely wonderful people- genuine believers- and it’s good to gain inspiration from their experiences, but it doesn’t change the fact that they’re essentially about people who happen to believe in God, and not about the existence of God. They do not demonstrate in any way that God is real.

Another common problem is that people often associate two matters so closely that they forget that these are two separate, albeit slightly related, issues. It’s very common, for instance, in media reports that use emotional manipulation- the media present a heart-warming or heart-breaking story, with real people or victims, and then issue a statement that is unverifiable or untrue. (Read more about Presentation Style here)

If a viewer points out the fallacy in the latter part of the story, regarding the claim, some other viewers fail to realise that the criticism offered had nothing to do with the people in the story, and was directed solely at the flawed statement.

Instead, they jump to the incorrect conclusion that someone who raises a criticism, or says anything negative about the way the story was presented, is unfeeling and lacks compassion, when actually all they lack is gullibility.

This is particularly counterproductive when a criticism is raised in with the best interests of the subjects of the story in mind, and meant to highlight some misrepresentation or overgeneralisation of their original intentions. (Read more about Deflection of Criticism here.)
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