Continuing with my series on the tactics of denialists, I present forced ambiguity and cherry picking. These are two tactics that are almost opposites of each other. The first deals with intentionally making vague comments that can never be guaranteed to mean a particular thing. I refer to this as the “I never said that” denial. Cherry picking is the careful selection of data, results, or information to present. If one chooses to present 4 papers out of 117 and just happens to choose the four papers that support their claim while ignoring the 113 that refute their claim, that is cherry picking.
Note that presenting the 113 papers could also be considered cherry picking. In general, it’s not though. The reason is because science is not a field that uses proof. It’s about the preponderance of the evidence. That’s also why citing papers is not an argument from authority. It’s an argument from evidence. That being said, when there is a handful of papers that support a concept and several thousand that reject a concept, giving equal time to the papers supporting the concept isn’t reasonable. Very likely, there is something wrong with them (as we have seen in the ID works).
Communication is a surprisingly difficult process, especially considering how much we do it. To communicate, several things must happen. A message must be created by the sender. The sender then encodes the message into some form that (hopefully) is understandable by the recipient. The message is transmitted and received. Then the receiver must decode the message.
If there is a problem in any of the steps, then the communication wasn’t successful. The problem, of course, is that everyone thinks that communication was successful. Most people seem to think that miscommunication occurs in the transmitting and receiving part of the process. While I acknowledge this is fraught with peril, I think that most of the problem occurs in the encoding portion.
The sender really has to consider the receiver and craft the message carefully so that it is understood. If I receive a message in German, no matter how good the intention of the sender, I just won’t get it.
Words have meanings. Often, they can have multiple meanings, even in the same language, depending on geography and culture. What’s the first thing you think of when you see the word “turkey”? You may think of a bird, the meat of that bird, a country, or a scoring term in bowling (10-pin bowling) or someone who is a jerk. Context is important for messages to be understood.
Cultures, businesses, and other social groupings often have a very specific process for communicating in order to reduce the chance of a miscommunication happening. I use the military as an example for this. The military has very specific terminology and a very detailed process for communicating. In most cases, the message is re-encoded by the recipient and sent back to the original sender to verify the accuracy. While, it sounds stilted and unnecessary to a layperson, accurate communication is needed when talking about weapons or multimillion dollar pieces of equipment.
A friend told me about a time this presented a (fortunately humorous) barrier to communication. While visiting some friends who lived in the northern US, my southern friend was taken to a restaurant. The waitress, politely asked him if he would like another drink. He replied, “Please.” She leaned in a little close and said a little louder, “Would you like another drink.” He replied, “Please.” Finally she shouted in his ear, “Would you like another drink!”.
In the south, in a similar situation, “please” means “yes, I would like another drink, please refill it.” In the north, where my friend was, “please” meant, “I can’t hear you, please repeat what you said.” Even though they both spoke the same language, the cultural implications of the words were different.
While they were each honestly attempting to communicate, they weren’t successful.
There is another kind of failure of communication though. It happens when communication is not intended to be accurate. Instead, the communication is intended to confuse the reader or listener. It is intended to sound a certain way, so that to a layperson, it may seem like a message is sent. But to an expert, it’s nonsense. It is an attempt to convince the non-expert that the sender is smart, knows what they are talking about, and should not be questioned (any question will make the asker look like an idiot and subject them to public ridicule).
Perhaps Lewis Carrol said it best in Alice in Wonderland. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean- neither more nor less.”
I call this forced ambiguity. When discussing something with a denialist, you must be careful and aware of when words suddenly change their meaning. Words will change meaning, even within the same sentence. As far as I’m aware, the creationists are the masters at this and other denialists groups use it less often.
One way to know that you are dealing with an issue of forced ambiguity is that the person you are talking to absolutely refuses to define the terms that they are using. This refusal may take many forms ranging from just ignoring the request all the way to “we all know what X means”.
Very often in creationism discussions, evolution is not defined. Many creationists will accept so-called micro-evolution, but will not accept macro-evolution. But in their refutations of evolution, creationists will often describe the argument against macro-evolution, and then conflate that argument into encompassing all evolution.
They are using a trick of language, instead of a well reasoned argument with evidence to make their point. In fact, there seems to be an entire culture of forced ambiguity within creationism circles. It’s gotten so bad that there are endless arguments just on the meanings of words (like “size” for example). While this can be mildly entertaining, it’s frustrating and just annoying.
A second issue with forced ambiguity is that one of the people talking will use ambiguous terms will use implication and then deny any attempts at refutation. That’s where the “I never said that” comes into play. And sure enough, you can scroll through pages of text and they never actually stated that exact thing. However, they implied it heavily, multiple times.
There is one other situation I need to briefly mention. It doesn’t occur often, but when it does, it’s literally a jaw dropping, mind numbing moment. There are those who are so confusing, so daft, that reading something that they have written is almost a surreal experience. Reading them is kind of like watching a wreck at an auto race. It’s horrible. You know that nothing good will come of it, but you cannot turn away. When you’re done with it, you wonder just what it was you read.
Dealing with forced ambiguity isn’t too hard, but it requires patience. Remember that the goal of the denier is simply to make things as confusing as possible. It is often enough to continually demand that they define their terms. Do not accept a “it’s what everybody knows it is” or anything like that. You can accept a cut and paste as long as they acknowledge that is the way that they are using the terms.
Getting a denier to do this is very, very difficult and it usually doesn’t matter, because they will still change meaning in mid sentence.
Usually though, it’s enough to show them that they are being ambiguous. And their refusal to accurately and consistently define their terms will show that they are not interested in having an adult conversation. The denier is there to preach to the heathens, not have a debate, certainly not to learn. They are interested in debating tricks that are meaningless in the real world.
When a denialists can’t confuse with words, then they can always confuse with information. My grandfather used to say, “Figures don’t lie, but liars can figure.” There is no data set so well established that denialists can’t take out the few bits that support their point of view. This is the essence of cherry picking.
In my experience, global warming denialists and the anti-GMO crowd tend to use this technique the most. Because of the variable nature of the data, natural up and down swings of temperatures and the complex nature of nutrition, it’s easy to find the part that says what the denialists wants it to say.
Everyone should remember than any two points on a graph can be connected to form a straight line. By specifically choosing two points (or even a handful), the global warming denialists can make it look like Earth is really experiencing a cooling trend, rather than a warming trend.
Cherry picking is not confined to just data though. Even selective review of research papers can result in cherry picking. There is a significant amount of research being done on genetically modified organisms. Many research and survey papers are published every week. Most are supportive of GMOs, while a few are not supportive. Promoting only those reports that are not supportive of GMOs is cherry picking.
When the GMO controversy first began, I had a friend on facebook. She was strongly anti-GMO. Soon after we began our discussions on the subject, Seralini published his infamous paper.  My friend was adamant that this was the evidence that was the end of genetically modified food.
I contacted the authors and received a copy of the paper, which even to the non-expert eye had some significant problems. The paper has since been retracted by the publisher.
But my question quickly became, “why is this paper the doom of GMOs, when all the other papers written do not show the same results”. Another way of putting it is, “why do you promote this paper and ignore all the others”. The reason, of course, is because this paper supported my friend’s built in belief that GMOs are bad.
Cherry picking is a difficult tactic to deal with. Often, only the really expert person can realize that cherry picking is happening. In many areas there is just too much information. Experts (professors and other professionals in the field) have the ability and the time to do that kind of research. It’s a job requirement. But for the casually interested person, it’s just not possible to spend hours a day reading the journals and research (not to mention cost prohibitive as journals are not free).
Part of the problem with cherry picking is that it’s difficult to distinguish from actual consensus. If I choose to ignore creationist authors, am I cherry picking? That’s a difficult distinction to make. There is a significant amount of information to support the claim that creationists don’t do science and there notions are not useful. While I occasionally read the claims, I haven’t seen anything new in creationism in a long time. Creationism is an easy example though.
What about genetically modified organisms? The scientific consensus appears to be that GMOs are safe (PDF). There are a number of articles published that disagree though. Now, if I ignore articles not published by geneticists or agronomists, then I don’t think I’m cherry picking. While an artificial intelligence researcher at MIT may be a perfectly intelligent person, I don’t think that they have the background and knowledge needed to write an article (pro or con) on GMOs. Recall what I said earlier that it is very difficult for someone to keep up in a field outside of their expertise. This is both for time and technical reasons.
Regardless, well over 99% of all biologists are confident that evolution is real and that it fully explains the diversity of life on Earth. Well over 99% of all climatologists are confident that global warming is real and is caused by the actions of humans.
No one can be an expert in everything. What we have to do is research the various claims from both sides. We have to find people that we can trust, whose research we can trust. But we can’t stop there. Even some of the greatest scientists of the last century have gone off the deep end.
In other words, we should be skeptical. Of course, there is such a thing as hyperskepticism. Where one does not accept any evidence at all (like ID proponents and anti-GMO groups). This form of skepticism isn’t about learning, finding evidence, and judging the validity of conclusions. This is about using one’s personal beliefs to reject everything that is different. These systems are much more like religion (indeed, creationism and intelligent design are religious). Any tiny, miniscule reference( for example here, here, or here ), that even seems to support their beliefs are lauded as the end of their opponents. While the mountains of evidence against them are ignored.
Cherry picking can be hard to deal with. First, you have to have a very good knowledge of the subject matter. Especially when the denier starts throwing around research that supports their point of view. It may be perfectly valid research as well or it may look good, but have some problems. Only a true expert in the field can generally tell.
The other thing is to counter with a consensus. Again, significant knowledge of the field is required.
One other possibility is the quotemine. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to find the paper that they are using and see what the author actually said. Meyer and other creationists use this frequently to quote a problem with evolution, ignoring the rest of the paper that explains, in detail, why it’s not a problem.
 There are some technical reasons why I don’t like or use these terms, but they are common in discussions with creationists. Micro-evolution refers to the minor changes that come about due to adaptation, natural selection, and variations in the genetic code over a small time period. Most creationists accept this because it is directly observable in the lab and in the wild. Macro-evolution refers to much larger differences that appear higher taxonomic groups. Things like the appearance of feathers or the transition from fish to tetrapods would be macro-evolution. To an evolutionary biologist, these things are all just evolution. Macro-evolution is just evolution that takes place over a much longer timeframe than we can see in the lab, or even in human history.