What is “quote mining”?

Imagine for a moment that I am a prominent Evolutionary Biologist and I’m being interviewed on television about my scientific viewpoint versus Intelligent Design or Creationism.   The interviewer refers to the complexity of life, the suitable conditions on Earth, the human eye, etc, and asks how I can explain all of this.  My reply is something like:

“We can find complexity and patterns all around us and humans are accustomed to complexity being the result of design.  In fact, it is our *own* design that we are usually thinking of when we see things that have complexity.  When you look at the universe it certainly appears to be the work of a designer.  But this need not be the case.  Consider the beautiful and complex snowflake or the buckyball carbon molecule.  These appear to be the work of an artist or designer who had to have crafted them, yet they are the result of natural processes in certain conditions.  The same is true of the biodiversity of life on Earth.”

So, there’s my hypothetical response to the interviewer.

Years later, a Creationist or Intelligent Design proponent is writing an article.  Perhaps it is a publisher of religious documents that are used in study or service.  In their article they are attempting to discredit natural explanations such as Evolution.  One way they could attempt to do that is to find prominent and/or famous scientists who actually admit to Creationist claims.  This is very difficult to find, however.  But not if you quote mine.

See, the person writing this article could simply write:

Even scientists admit Creationism is true.  Prominent Evolutionary Biologist Toru_El once said, “When you look at the universe it certainly appears to be the work of a designer.”  When scientists of this caliber make this admission then they are admitting that…. <blah, blah, blah>

There you have it.  Toru_El is now a Creationist, which is obviously not true.  This is called “Quote Mining” or “Quoting out of Context” and it is a logical fallacy. It is also a form of intellectual dishonesty.

Why is this done?  Well, the answer is pretty obvious.  It is an appeal to authority.  The dishonest writer wants to make it appear that some well known person has said something particular about a particular subject that they actually didn’t.

One notorious example is movie review blurbs.  Have you ever been watching the previews for a new upcoming film where a number of critics, magazines or celebrities are quoted?  The quote is usually flashed on the screen and read aloud by the narrator.  These quotes are used to build anticipation, heighten expectations and basically to get butts in the seats.  But these blurbs are often dishonest and perfect examples of quote mining.  For example, in a review of the television show Lost, Mike Ryan said of the show:

“the most confusing, asinine, ridiculous —yet somehow addictively awesome — television show of all time.”

In other words, it was the most confusing, asinine, ridiculous television show of all time, yet was still somehow addictively awesome. Okay, I can buy that a show can be confusing, asinine and ridiculous but still entertaining.  But when Mr. Ryan was quoted to promote the show, it appeared thusly:

“the most addictively awesome television show of all time”

That is not the same statement and it is pure dishonesty to quote in such a manner.

But that’s actually cutting words out of a sentence.  One need not be this insidious to still be guilty of dishonesty through quote mining.  My example of an interview is fictional, however there are real examples of quote mining by Creationists, and none other than by Charles Darwin himself.  Who better to quote mine than the developer of the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection?  If you can make Darwin support your case then that’s money, right?

And so it has been, particularly the “Absurd in the highest degree” quote from Darwin’s “Origin of the Species”.  The quote used by Creationists is as follows:

To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree. — Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species

Wow, how incriminating of Mr. Darwin.  What a blunder.  Here he is admitting that his theory is absurd when one considers the human eye.  Well that’s it for Evolution then, right?  Wrong.  This was quote mining. Let’s take a broader look at the passage from which this quote has been so carefully plucked.

To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree. Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real. — Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species

Darwin at the time truly did have difficulty with figuring out the eye as well as things like peacock feathers.  But immediately following that line is one that basically says if the evidence exists that shows intermediate stages of eye development and that they are useful, then it is no longer difficult to understand.  Since Darwin’s day this evidence has been found and observed across many various species.  It is no longer “absurd to the highest degree” to think that they eye evolved.

Quote mining is used in advertising, marketing, politics, pseudoscience and by religious organizations that seek to appeal to secular authorities that seem to support the validity of the religious claims when they are properly quote mined.

But how do you know when someone is quote mining?  Well, it’s difficult without vetting the information yourself.  In some cases you simply look up the reference and read the whole passage to get its context.  In other cases you may be able to rely on particular authors or sources who have established a reputation for quoting only in proper context.

I would also suggest cross-checking quotes that appear in politics, advertising, anti-science or religious apologetics, especially when the quote seems to contradict the position of the person who is being quoted.

Assume nothing.  Question everything.  Especially when you are told NOT to question.

Sources

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