It has a name: confirmation bias. It’s the process of sifting through authorities or evidence to find the nuggets that confirm our beliefs, and ignoring those that don’t.
As we watch the food fight that is our political discourse, I often have to resist the temptation to interrupt this or that pontificator and ask: have you really read that book you are citing?
Mostly, this impulse arises in connection with Ayn Rand. I’ve read pretty much everything she wrote, and I find it absolutely amazing when self-identified “bible-believing” Christians threaten to “go Galt” or parrot something else from Rand–and then more often than not, follow it up with a biblical quote. Rand, of course, was a committed and full-throated atheist, and she wasn’t shy about her contempt for religious folks.
Then there are the economic libertarians who quote Hayek when they oppose government social programs. Hayek was anything but consistent, but in The Road to Serfdom, he devoted several paragraphs (page 148 for those who are interested) to defense of a social safety net, arguing that “There is no reason why in a society which has reached the general level of wealth which ours has attained” a minimum income shouldn’t be guaranteed “without endangering general freedom.”
There are plenty of other examples, but far and away the most selectively read texts are the bible and the Constitution. If you listen to Conservative and Liberal Christians quoting the bible, you would swear they are looking at completely different books.
What’s that line from Simon and Garfunkel? “Man sees what he wants to see, and disregards the rest.”
We all do that to a greater or lesser extent. But education–not to mention intellectual honesty– requires reading, not culling, with an appropriate recognition of the importance of context, and a fair consideration of points with which we disagree.
When we go “cherry-picking,” we miss the other fruit.