Fallacies: Cherry Picking

Just focus on the ripe cherries; pay no attention to any others

Just focus on the ripe cherries; pay no attention to any others

If you judged fresh cherries only by he ones sold in supermarkets, you’d conclude that all cherries are ripe, good-looking and healthy. But the cherries sold in supermarkets aren’t a representative sample; they represent the very best, not a random sample of all cherries growing on the trees. It’s an example of selection bias, an unrepresentative sample, and gave us the term “cherry picking.” And it is a particularly serious form of logical fallacy, because you cannot always detect whether the sample before you is representative.

The Trump Administration has been caught cherry picking the data in support of its efforts to reduce legal immigration.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services prepared a study that found refugees brought in $63 billion more in government revenues over the past decade than they cost. The study, which was completed in late July but never publicly released, found that refugees “contributed an estimated $269.1 billion in revenues to all levels of government” between 2005 and 2014 through the payment of federal, state and local taxes. The government services consumed by the refugees were valued at about $206 million.

Because those facts didn’t support the conclusion the Trump Administration – that refugees cost the United States money – the report was suppressed. It was not made public.

Instead, the Department issued a report showing that the per capita costs of refugees, especially in their first four years of residency, was higher than those of the average U.S. citizen. “In an average year over the 10-year period, per-capita refugee costs for major H.H.S. programs totaled $3,300,” the released says. “Per-person costs for the U.S. population were lower, at $2,500, reflecting a greater participation of refugees in H.H.S. programs, especially during their first four years” in the United States. The Trump Administration picked just the costs, not the revenues. Just the pretty, ripe cherries, not all the cherries on the tree.

Except the suppressed draft report was leaked, presumably by a disaffected employee of the USDHSS. To the New York Times.

Caught cherry picking the data, the Trump Administration scrambled to justify its logical fallacy. In particular, Trump’s chief policy adviser, Stephen Miller, has asserted that continuing to welcome refugees is too costly and raises concerns about terrorism. A report that showed refugees were a revenue source, not an expense, would undermine the Administration’s whole anti-immigrant stance. The Times reported that White House officials the conclusions in the draft report were illegitimate and politically motivated, and were disproved by the final report issued by the agency, which asserts that the per-capita cost of a refugee is higher than that of an American. Except, of course, that’s not what the suppressed report said. The Trump Administration compounded its cherry picking fallacy by making a false claim about the suppressed data.

When the Administration got called on that, it tried again. “This leak was delivered by someone with an ideological agenda, not someone looking at hard data,” said Raj Shah, a White House spokesman. That’s an ad hominem fallacy, attacking the person instead of addressing the issue. The ad hominem fallacy is a special favorite of Donal Trump; it’s his go-to argument.

Next up was John Graham, the acting assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at the health department. He’s reported to have said: “We do not comment on allegedly leaked documents” and that the draft report had not been finalized. Graham noted that Mr. Trump’s memorandum “seeks an analysis related to the cost of refugee programs. Therefore, the only analysis in the scope of H.H.S.’s response to the memo would be on refugee-related expenditures from data within H.H.S. programs.” Graham is attempting to redefine the question to fit the data. If net costs don’t support your argument, focus on gross costs only instead. Of course, the problem with this approach is it proves too much. A Trump favorite, the EB-5 visa program, under which immigrants can, in effect, buy a visa for $1 million, is “too costly” if you ignore the revenue of the $1 million investment.

It’s pretty clear that the Trump Administration has once again been caught lying. Specifically, cherry picking. Caught lying, they have offered three different fallacies in response. But the bottom line is that the claim refugees cost the United States money is demonstrably false.