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Evidence Matters: Data, Cherry Picking, and the Challenges of Confirmation Bias

In our last post, we highlighted the debate around the term “evidence-based practices” and how we think about the data behind them. Today, we look at the benefits and challenges of using data to support a claim and how things can sometimes go awry.

On the surface, using evidence to support an idea seems straightforward­­­­­­— examine the data and determine whether it aligns with your claim or practice. However, as is often the case, it can be far too easy for individuals or organizations to cherry pick data.

“Cherry picking” is a term that refers to the act of focusing only on evidence that supports one’s claim, while ignoring evidence that contradicts it. When it comes to using research to inform policy, it is important to be aware of cherry picking, both intentional and unintentional, as it can contribute to misleading rhetoric.

Oftentimes, cherry picking can result from “confirmation bias”, which is a bias that leads people to interpret information in a way that fits with their existing beliefs. As we think about evidence— and the policies that sometimes follow— it is important that we remain vigilant about how we interpret research findings.  While comprehensive and reliable data can be powerful, taking that data out of context can be equally problematic.

While school districts across the nation look toward more effective, evidence-based practices to improve student performance and close opportunity gaps, it is crucial that leaders and policymakers routinely examine the data behind the evidence in a systematic, unbiased, and equitable manner. Because as we seek answers, we must also seek the truth.

Kelly Gregory is the Riley Institute’s Director for Public Education Partnerships and Projects and previously taught for 11 years in South Carolina public schools. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a master’s degree in Special Education. She also holds a National Board certification as an Exceptional Needs Specialist. She can be reached at