• Moral Panic: Spotting Potential Manipulation: The Cherry Pickers


    I recall one of my favorite university professors tell a story about his trip to Alaska. While there, he visited a museum that presented a video about sled dogs and how they were (apparently) superior to snowmobiles.

    Half way through the presentation,” he said, “I realized… I was being persuaded.”

    He took incredible glee in the realization, reveling in observing the various and sundry ways the persuaders bent supposedly innocuous information to their benefit.

    I learned a lot from that class, lessons I carry with me decades after the fact; techniques I use daily when I’m writing ad copy for clients. Today I’ll share a few with you.

    However, before I do so, I should mention that Jonathan launched this series and his site holds the official definition of “Moral Panic.” It’s this:

    A moral panic is an intense feeling expressed in a population about an issue that appears to threaten the social order.

    So, without any further ado, I’d like to present my totally unscientific, yet (somewhat) proven by years on hard earned experience, top ten clues that someone is attempting to persuade, dare I say, manipulate you.

    10. Cherry Picking Proof

    The latest research sometimes feels all over the map. For example, one weight loss study will say carbs will make you fat. The next says carbs are slimming.

    Turns out, the devil’s in the details. Sadly, even study results can be manipulated. Depending on who ran the study, the funding source, protocols, and such… they all can affect outcomes. That’s why it’s important to look at the preponderance of evidence when it comes to not only weight loss, but most other subjects as well.

    As a copywriter, I can generally find proof for any claim I’d like to make. Only my savvy readers, those who have a lot of time on their hands (evidently), offer contrary evidence. I admire those eagle eyed readers, btw.

    Another example: Instances of negative behavior apparently run rampant through Internet community. That’s really sad. However, are things as bad as they seem? I’d argue they’re not. As a former reporter (OK. I know. I’ve done a LOT of writing these past 20 years), I’m very familiar with the old “If it bleeds it leads” mantra. Simply said, good news doesn’t sell papers. It generally doesn’t attract as many clicks, either.

    However, continual negative press often creates an angry, outraged, moral panic-type atmosphere that garners readers. That’s exactly what the cherry pickers want.

    Your takeaway: When presented with examples, anecdotes, stories, so-called “proof,” even scientific studies, always check the source. Fact check the conclusions. Find other points of view. Generally, the truth is fairly boring, sitting somewhere in the middle of two somewhat extreme view points.

    If you keep calm, do even a modicum of fact checking (Snopes is often your friend), you can guard against falling prey to the cherry picking technique.

    Next time: Ha. It’s a fun one. Moral Panic: It’s a CRISIS!~!

    Category: Moral Panic


    Article by: Beth Erickson

    I'm Beth Ann Erickson, a freelance writer, publisher, and skeptic. I live in Central Minnesota with my husband, son, and two rescue pups. Life is flippin' good. :)

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    1. Do you have any specific examples of cherry picking, in any given field?

      I remember this happening a lot in theological debates (e.g. free will vs. predestination) when partisans of each side would quote mine for the verses that supported their position.

      I’ve seen this a fair bit in science denialism as well, where partisans will pick out the studies that favour their argument and carefully ignore or construct weird exclusion criteria to write off the other ones.

      As to the memetic maelstrom that is organized secularism/skepticism, you’ve already blogged about “A Woman’s Room Online,” and it would be harder to find a more perfect example of picking out the very worst of the worst and using those carefully selected bits to characterize the overall situation in a moral panicky sort of way.

      1. Hey Damion, good to see you.

        I think one of my favorite examples of cherry picking data would have to be the field of nutrition. After my cancer diagnosis I was deluged with emails from helpful people offering alternative methods to treat it. For example:

        Coffee enemas! Science supports it!
        Gerson Therapy works every time, no exceptions!
        A whole foods/plant based diet will dissolve cancer!
        Vegans don’t get cancer!
        Paleo people don’t get cancer!
        The China Study PROVES you can turn on and turn off cancer cells!
        Alkaline! Your body must be alkaline!

        Another example: The Humane Society of the United States has an entire website supporting the vegan lifestyle… all supposedly science based. Vegans call this website “overwhelming evidence” supporting their lifestyle. I don’t have the time, background, or inclination to review each video and comment, but yeah, the science of nutrition appears pretty murky. (http://nutritionfacts.org/)

        Also, all the above claims had at least one (supposedly) supporting study, many from the HSUS site.

        I finally wound up visiting an RD, referred by my family doc, to help with the digestion issues related to having 1/2 to 2/3 of my colon removed. Sadly, her recommendations contained no exclamation points. In fact they were pretty boring.

        Thanks for your comment. – Beth 🙂

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