Faithful Acowlytes. This post comes as something in the way of an instruction. It is, in essence, an instruction for Queen Willy, who forwarded me the email that follows, but it is at the same time a refresher for us all. Now, it should be stressed that Queen Willy was not at all taken in by the ‘feng shui’ bullcrap that the email espouses, but she did (and I think she’ll concede) fall for the bogus ‘specialness’ that it advertises.

Tragically for Queen Willy, she sent it to me. She obviously did not read the new slogan that Buccanears prompted for us in the post before last: Tethered Cow Ahead: Where Woo meets Moo.

Before we go on, I’m going to ask who spotted it? Why is does this ‘kinda interesting’ date-play merit feng shui magical money bags status? The answer is, of course, that it doesn’t. This is a prime example of what we in the skeptical world called ‘cherry picking’. Put simply, if you have a lot of data at your disposal, by choosing to present only some of it, you can make things seem a lot more special than they actually are. Now, I guess to be fair, the numbers bandied around in this email are ‘kinda’ interesting, but only in the way that you can take pretty much ANY year you choose and find ‘kinda’ interesting date effects.

Let’s pick, oh, last year and see what we can find. Wow, look at these weird dates that appear in 2010:

20.10.2010, 01.02.2010, 10.10.10, 8.9.10, 01.11.10 ((Americans please note that we write our dates differently to you. This of course is not a liability in the woo world – it merely provides an opportunity to expand the number of ‘odd’ number combinations that are possible!))

Spooky eh? And what’s more, there was one more Friday in 2010 than usual because 2010 started on a Friday end ended on a Friday! In spite of this, though, there was only one Friday the 13th! So 2010 must have surely been a lucky year, right? ((I’m sure that if you were so inclined, and took more trouble than I did, you could find out all kinds of other ‘special’ things about 2010 too!)) I hope you took at advantage of that and stocked right up on lottery tickets along with the millions of other Chinese people who also won big! (Where does all that winning lottery money come from?!!!)

Cherry picking is a technique beloved of people who want scientific substantiation of their odd beliefs, but at the same time aren’t willing to indulge in actual science. Promoters of alternative medicine are particularly fond of this technique: offer up the three dubious trials that seem to show your peculiar homeopathic/chiropractic/anti-vaccination notion has something going for it, but conveniently neglect to mention the thousand other substantial experiments that show it’s a crock.

You will also find cherry picking at work when ‘psychics’ claim success in their predictions; the simple fact is that if you make a thousand plausible predictions you are very likely to get a few right. ((Plus, you can get things ‘sort of’ right and just cherry pick the bits that work for you. Genius!)) You promote those few correct hits and just don’t mention the huge swag of complete bollocks that you spouted at the same time.