Tag Archives: Cherry Picking Facts

Choose your own facts

Everyone has heard the expression, "you can choose your own something or other, but not your own facts."  Well, in a way, no.  Here's the way, according to Washington Post's Ombudsman, Andrew Alexander:

Opinion columnists are free to choose whatever facts bolster their arguments. But they aren't free to distort them.

The question of whether that happened is at the core of an uproar over a recent George F. Will column and The Post's fact-checking process.

That sounds wrong to me.  Two quick reasons.  First, there seems to be a question of scale.  If we have three facts that support a claim, and 97 which don't, an opinion columnist at the post is free to argue talk about the three to the exclusion of the 97.  Let's say, for instance, that one tiny piece of evidence (of dubious origin) holds that a certain person is guilty of a crime, yet a pile of evidence shows the opposite.  The Post's Ombudsman thinks it would be fine to mention the one piece, and not the others, creating the impression that the preponderance evidence leans the other way.

Second, we have a question of context.  Facts have a context in which they are true.  In George Will's recent column (which after all is the occasion for this piece), he alleges–and this is the foundation for his argument–that there was a global cooling hysteria in the 1970s.  This may be true of the popular media, but it wasn't true of scientists (who argued that the climate was warming).  There's a fact, sort of I guess, with no context producing a rather misleading inference.  This is especially true if the audience does not have a very clear grasp of the background information (which information makes Will's columns appear ridiculous). 

Choosing your own facts, in other words, can be a method of distortion, and, in this case it was.