Monday, 19 January 2015

Want to know what quote mining looks like? Here's a classic example.

Quote mining is the intellectually dishonest practice of selectively quoting an author in order to make them sound as if they are supporting the viewpoint of the one who is quoting then. Special creationist abuse of mainstream science by quote mining long ago reached the point that defenders of mainstream science compiled an archive of the most commonly abused quotes along with what the authors really said when quoted in context. Palaeontologist Stephen Gould undoubtedly spoke for all scientists who have been subject to such creationist dishonesty when he said:
"Since we proposed punctuated equilibria to explain trends, it is infuriating to be quoted again and again by creationists—whether through design or stupidity, I do not know—as admitting that the fossil record includes no transitional forms. Transitional forms are generally lacking at the species level, but they are abundant between larger groups." [1]
Despite the repeated exposure of such intellectual dishonesty, special creationists continue to quote mine mainstream scientists. Atheist blogger Hemant Mehta has uncovered a particularly blatant example of quote-mining in the January 2015 edition of the Jehovah's Witnesses magazine Awake! apparently dedicated to evolution denialism. He quotes the offending section:
Some might assume that a scientifically-minded person would pick “evolution” and that a religious person would pick “creation.” 
But not always. 
Rama Singh, professor of biology at Canada’s McMaster University, says: “The opposition to evolution goes beyond religious fundamentalism and includes a great many people from educated sections of the population.”
then points out how things are other than what Prof. Singh appears to be saying:
Whoa! Rama Singh sure seems to suggest that evolution is doubted by educated people for reasons that have nothing to do with religion.
But Misha Anouk, the founder of the site JW Alumni, knew better than to just accept whatever a JW publication told him. So he contacted Singh to find out if that was a fair and in-context quotation. 
Not only did Singh tell Anouk he was intentionally misquoted, he wrote a damning open letter to the editor of Awake!
Contrary to what you imply, I do not support a creationist view, nor do I suggest that even a minority of scientists support such a view. Anyone who reads my article can see that I fully support the theory of evolution (Singh 2011).
Your misquotation amounts to intellectual dishonesty and reflects on your character and dignity as editor as well as a man of God. I can understand that you do not accept evolution as an explanation for the biodiversity on this planet, but I cannot understand why you would knowingly misuse a scientist’s work to make him appear supporting the creationist point of view. 
So where did Awake! even get that information? Singh’s 2011 article said that a lot of smart people don’t accept evolution for reasons other than religion… because they don’t actually understand evolution. The same article went on to suggest that colleges should make evolution a mandatory course.
This is a perfect example of someone taking a scientist’s words out of context to prove the exact opposite point. It’s dishonest, it’s deceptive, and they justify it because it’s done in the name of God. (Emphasis mine) [2]
It's pretty damning stuff, but our community is not free of this practice, as I've pointed out previously when I noted how a November 2013 article in The Testimony blatantly quote-mined Charles Darwin:
[The author's] next step is to resort to misquoting Darwin:  
Natural selection may account for stronger gazelles, but does it explain how the gazelle developed in the first place? Does it explain how individual organs—the ear, the eye, the digestive system—evolved? Darwin himself acknowledged this challenge in his most famous book, On the Origin of the Species: “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 possible degree.” 
This is a shamefully dishonest misquotation of Darwin, who would often pose a rhetorical question, then answer it. Special creationists often quote the first part of Darwin, but fail to continue the quote, thus completely changing the meaning of the quote in context. Here is the quote in context
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 possible 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. 
Had [the author] bothered to continue the quotation, he would have shown his readers that Darwin did not regard the evolution of the eye as being impossible. This is disgraceful. A high school student who handed in a paper that quoted references in such a shabby way would be failed, yet [the author]...think[s] that this is justified. It is not. Intellectual dishonesty is never justified. 
Darwin continued to show that a range of plausible intermediates existed then stated: 
If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down. But I can find out no such case. 
Either [the author] has blindly quoted a special creationist source without bothering to properly check the reference, which is incompetent scholarship, or he has deliberately misquoted Darwin, which is intellectually dishonest behaviour.  
Quote mining an author is still intellectually dishonest behaviour, irrespective of whether the author is alive or dead. Sadly, it's not just the Jehovah's Witnesses and Evangelicals who resort to quote mining in a desperate attempt to rebut evolution. We do it too.


1. Gould S.J. Evolution as Fact and Theory, Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes: Further Reflections in Natural History, (1994: New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994) p. 260

2. Mehta H "Jehovah’s Witness Publication Cites Professor Who Doubts Evolution… but Professor Says He Was Unfairly Misquoted" Friendly Atheist Jan 18 2015