Pillars of History: The Dangers of Cherry-picking

Anyone who has had the pleasure (and pain) of completing a historical methods course in their lifetime should have already encountered the lesson on the perils of cherry-picking evidence to fit a desired thesis. The problem is the alarming number of history students—and even Masters-level and PhD-level historians—for whom the lesson inexplicably never stuck.

Cherry-picking is most commonly a sign of either laziness, poor research practices, and/or good old-fashioned bull-headedness, and as such is an indicator of weak writing. Successful writers of history avoid cherry-picking evidence like the plague, and I’m here to tell you how you can, too!

I like to think that there are two varieties of cherry-pickers: those purely motivated by laziness (‘I’m in too deep and my paper is due in two hours and it’s too much work to restructure my thesis now so I’m just going to ignore the evidence against it ahhhhhhhh!’) and those motivated by utter villainy (‘I was fully aware when I created this thesis statement that I was full of it, and I’m just going to omit any sources disagreeing with me because I’m only in this for the [grade/money]. Mwahahaha!’). Although the former situation is slightly more understandable, both are awful and you should avoid becoming either at all costs.

All of us need to be aware of the warning signs of cherry-picking, and so I’ve included a handy-dandy little checklist below to help you determine whether you have ever employed cherry-picking in your own academic work or encountered it in a peer’s work. (And, just to be clear, I don’t mean “the warning signs of cherry-picking” as in the suspicious presence of a basket and a hydraulic crane in your workspace. No, the act of historical cherry-picking is much more nefarious than any fruit harvest, no matter how rotten…) So, without further ado:

__ Have you ever been in the process of choosing primary- or secondary-source quotes for your work’s argument and conveniently ignored a quote that didn’t quite jive with your thesis?

__ Have you ever considered adding a source to your Works Cited and then happened to omit it because it disagreed with your side of the discussion and you knew your reader(s) would recognize it?

__ Have you ever finalized a thesis before even examining sources on the topic?

__ Have you ever felt constricted by your thesis when discovering evidence that contradicted it, but ran with it anyway?

OR

__ Have you ever read a paper, article, or book or sat through a talk that left you wondering, ‘This is all well and good, but I feel like we’re missing a side of the story’?

If you answered YES to any of the above questions, you may have been a victim or perpetrator of historical cherry-picking.

If you’re feeling a little sick to your stomach right now because you just realized that you’re one of the no-good cherry-pickers I’ve been talking about, don’t beat yourself up about it! Whether consciously or unconsciously, we’ve all been there at some point. What’s most important is that

  • you’re aware of the temptation to cherry-pick,
  • you can recognize the signs of cherry-picking, and
  • you know what to do if it happens to you.

Below are a few tips that can help keep your academic work clean cut and free of cherry-picking.

  1. Research before thesis, NEVER thesis before research. Wait to write a concrete thesis statement until you have completed a substantial amount of research. This will save you time later in the project–there’s nothing as frustrating and anxiety-inducing as realizing your thesis is flawed in the eleventh hour and having no time to make changes.
  2. Embrace nuance. It’s okay and even encouraged to include dissenting voices in your academic work. In fact, the ability to introduce and then effectively shut down opposition is one that will impress your readers and reaffirm your side of the argument!
  3. Ask a peer to read your work. It’s easy to get so wrapped up in your understanding of your chosen topic and argument that sometimes you can become blinded to the flaws in your work. Consider bringing an outside pair of eyes (or multiple pairs of eyes!) in to look through your work in both its early and later stages to help identify potential points of weakness before they get too far along. These peer readers can include friends, family members, classmates, mentors, and even your students!

And remember: Friends don’t let friends cherry-pick!

(Unless it’s the kind of cherry-picking with actual cherries—in that case, have at it.)

2 thoughts on “Pillars of History: The Dangers of Cherry-picking

  1. This was a delightfully fun post! Not only was it fun it also addressed an important issue. Well done! I’m loving the blog so far!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.