Kevin Drum coined the term “nut picking” to refer to a variant of the Straw Man. In this variant, a Straw Man is created from fringe and non-representative statements from or of members of a group. This Straw Man is then presented as representing the irrationality or incompetence of the group, which can be seen as like a Hasty Generalization. This version is often seen as combing an Ad Hominem with the Fallacy of Composition (what is true of the extreme or fringe parts is true of the whole). It can also be taken as making use of Guilt by Association, since it associates the fringe and extreme members of a group with the other members.
It can be presented in the following form:
Premise 1: Person A selects statements by or members of Group G that are fringe and non-representative of G.
Premise 2: Person A presents these statements or members as being mainstream and representative of G.
Conclusion: Therefore, group G is irrational, incompetent, or otherwise defective.
Alternatively, it can be presented more bluntly in the spirit of the nut picking name. Put this way, the fallacy involves selecting the “nuts” (fringe or extreme members) of a group and asserting that these members represent or speak for the mainstream of the group. This presentation would usually look like this:
Premise 1: N, the “nuts” (extreme or fringe members) of group G, are selected.
Premise 2: N, the “nuts” are presented as representing group G.
Conclusion: Therefore, group G holds the views of N or does what N does.
For example, a Democrat might nut pick avowed white supremacists in the Republican party to conclude that the Republican Party is a white supremacist party. As another example, a Republican might nut pick avowed Marxists in the Democratic party to conclude that the Democratic party is Marxist.
It is obviously not a fallacy to infer that a group is fringe or extreme if its views are fringe or extreme. It is also not a fallacy to infer that a group is fringe or extreme if that is the mainstream of the group.
Sorting out what the real views of a group are or who counts as a mainstream or true member of the group can be challenging. The difficulty of making such distinctions is often compounded by other fallacies, such as the Purity Fallacy, which can be seen as the reverse of nut picking. In nut picking, a group is taken as being defined by its fringe or extreme members. In the Appeal to Purity Fallacy, what might be seen as fringe or extreme members are excluded, in an unprincipled way, from defining the group.
Groups that hold extreme or fringe views sometimes attempt to defend themselves by accusing their critics of committing this fallacy. For example, a white supremacist group might claim that their critics are focusing only on their members who have swastika tattoos and thus are nut picking. But if the sample used is representative of the group (large enough and not biased), then this would not be nut picking but an accurate characterization of the group.
As the example shows, a false accusation of nut picking can, ironically, involve a form of internal nut picking: the defenders of the group select their most extreme members and claim that unless the entire group is as extreme as the most extreme members, then the group is not extreme. But, continuing the example, claiming that a group that publicly holds to white supremacist ideology is not a white supremacist group because only their most fringe members have swastika tattoos would not be good reasoning.
Defense: To avoid committing or falling victim to this fallacy, be sure to consider whether the evidence offered that a group is extreme, or fringe does not consist of fringe or extreme examples that differ from the mainstream of the group. As always, you should be especially cautious when considering groups that you have strong feelings about.
“I saw some people at the rally for that Republican who had swastika tattoos. That confirms what I have long believed, the Republicans are all white supremacists.
“I saw some people at the rally for that Democrat who were waving around a hammer and sickle flag. That confirms what I have long believed, the Democrats are Marxists!”
Ted: “Look at those anti-choice lunatics. I bet most of them are fine with killing doctors and even women who get abortions.”
Sally: “Why do you think that?”
Ted: “Well doctors have been killed by these so-called pro-life nuts. So, it is reasonable to think that they think killing doctors is just fine. Hypocrits.”
Ted: “Look at those pro-choice lunatics. I bet most of them are fine with killing babies at 8 or even 9 months.”
Sally: “Why do you think that?”
Ted: “Well, I did see this person at a rally who had a sign saying, “abortion on demand at any time!” They were endorsing abortions at any time. No one told her to put away that sign, so I am sure all those so called pro-choice anti-life feminazis agree with her. They are all fine with abortions at any time.”
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