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.