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The Quote Mine Project

Or, Lies, Damned Lies and Quote Mines

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[Last update: October 31, 2006]
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One frequent creationist poster to the talk.origins newsgroup produced a long list of what he dubbed "Famous quotes from famous evolutionists" [1]. It was not hard to discover that the list was taken, almost verbatim, from a creationist site called "Anointed-One.Net", where the list is called "Quotes by Famous Evolutionists." Lists like this, presented with little or no context except for vague claims that they somehow "disprove" evolution, are common among creationists. Indeed, entire books of these quotes have been published [2].

For a number of reasons, the posting of this list was illustrative of a persistent and basically dishonest practice, frequently engaged in by creationists, that has become known as "quote-mining." While the etymology of this term is obscure [3], the definition is clear enough. It is the use of a (usually short) passage, taken from the work of an authority in some field, "which superficially appears to support one's position, but [from which] significant context is omitted and contrary evidence is conveniently ignored" [4].

In response, numerous people took the trouble to look up the source material to learn the context of the passages. The result of this considerable effort demonstrated that these "quotes" were, in very large part, so out-of-context as to qualify as complete distortions of the authors' intent. As noted by Dana Tweedy, one of the responders:

Those quotations were carefully taken out of context, to change the meaning. The "evolutionist(s)" in those quotations [were] not admitting that "a portion of evolution" was "fraudulent". That is the whole point of a "lie of omission", to omit the part of the person's words that explains and clarifies the person's position. Those quotes you stole are classic lies of omission. They are false, and using them is perpetrating a falsehood . . . [5]

Another responder, John Wilkins, continued in the same vein:

[I]t is worth observing too that not only were these quotes taken carefully out of context, but that they must have been deliberately done so. After [unearthing the context] I could not find there is [any] way these could have been taken accidentally or in ignorance out of the context.

Several of them turn out to be railing against creationists. More than a few turn out to be making the exact opposite point [than the bare words seem to indicate] and at least one was reporting secondarily on the ideas of others in order to rebut them. Once is a mistake, twice is carelessness, three times could be stupidity, but the sheer volume of these is a deliberately planned campaign of disinformation. [6]

Another aspect of this practice is that these "quotes" are widely passed around and used repeatedly by creationists, while neither bothering to check the original source nor giving any indication that they are taken from secondary sources. This is shown by the fact (as can be seen in a number of these cases) that there are errors that can and have crept into these quotes or their citations which are then propagated by other creationists when they are copied without attribution. (Ironically, this is the same type of "copying error", i.e. mutation, that can be used to trace phylogenetic histories of populations.) More importantly, such thoughtless iterations demonstrate an unwillingness to understand the underlying issues and an indifference to the ideas and reputations of the people whose names they are appropriating.

In addition, some of the "quotes" were outright fabrications; others were actually taken from creationist authors or other people who doubted, rather than supported, evolution (making their designation as "evolutionists" itself disingenuous); several were expressions of opinion by people with no expertise in fields related to evolution and many were so old as to be of no use at all in understanding present day evolutionary theory. The few quotes that can be said to be both in context and from knowledgeable proponents of evolution [7] invariably discuss limited technical subjects which may appear, to those unfamiliar with the details of modern biology, to contradict evolutionary theory but, in fact, do not.

Of course, even if each and every one of these quotes was accurate and truly reflected the opinions of the authors, it would not matter a bit. If all eighty-six were from different scientists [8] and all eighty-six thought evolution wrong, that would not begin to tip the consensus formed by hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of scientists from a broad range of fields that firmly hold evolution to be the only current scientific theory that explains all the myriad facts surrounding the nature of life on Earth.

Naturally enough, the question arises: 'If the quotes don't mean anything, why should we care enough to go to such great lengths to show these quotes for what they are?' The best answer came from John Wilkins:

The first issue is whether or not they have been correctly quoted. You know as well as I do that the only reason these quotes have been put up on the web and dittoed by the dittoheads like [the poster] is that they imply that these people do not think that evolution is true for some reason, and that the clever folk at AiG [9] or wherever have "caught them in a slipup" that reveals their "true" beliefs. It is all a rhetorical trick.

They have not been correctly quoted (except, perhaps, for the creationists in that list who are been falsely touted as evolutionists). This is the first dishonesty. Because every single one of the quotes so far checked do intend to say that evolution is correct, and that what we see is consistent with it. All of them. You can dance around this issue all you like, but it is still a lie, and an egregious one. Doing this in a first year undergraduate essay would earn an instant failure. It is the very worst of scholarship.

The second issue is whether or not they are correct in their statements. Most of them are comments made about the punctuated equilibrium theory/model/pattern that was, at the time of most of these publications, a hot issue in evolutionary biology. There was considerable debate on the matter. The consensus that resulted, and which is in place today, is that evolution will show these sorts of patterns, both for the reasons Gould and Eldredge supposed (allopatric speciation) and for other reasons (nonlinear dynamics in populations). Hence, it is dishonest to imply, the way the quote miner does, that this is an unresolved issue in modern evolutionary biology.

The third act of dishonesty is that the quote miner is "cherry picking". This is the term for when you go looking through the literature to find cites that back up your own personal hobbyhorse. Of course in this case the hobbyhorse is that "evolutionists are themselves questioning Darwinism", but still it is a bad thing to do, morally and academically. [10]

In short, these quote-mined lists come with their own context which makes them important to address. The site this list was "appropriated" from, for example, prefaces it with the following:

Before any serious dialogue of deity can be entertained, the subjects of spontaneous generation and evolution must first be addressed.

This is one of the more inflammatory topics of discussion, especially coming from a creation point of view. In order to gain as much credibility as possible and so you can understand why I feel the way I do, I will use words spoken by evolutionists. [11]

Clearly this list is intended to provide support both for a particular religious view and for a denial of the scientific nature of evolutionary theory. The first is an egregious abuse of the views of most of the people quoted and the second is a blatant distortion (whether through ignorance or dishonesty) of the words themselves. In any event, to remain silent in the face of this tactic would be to be to fail the avowed purpose of Talk.Origins and, worse, to be complicit in the lie.

It is important, though, to note that this is not intended as an indictment of religion in general or of those who believe that life is the result of divine action. There is little doubt that the majority of the contributors to this effort (many of whom are, themselves, theists) would agree that this dishonesty is not the typical behavior of believers in a moral and loving God. It is the aberration of a tiny minority who, through tactics such as these, have gained importance all out of proportion to the value of their ideas.

Finally, we hope to be adding to this list as time goes by. If you find an example of creationist quote mining and have the correct context, please feel free to forward it to John Pieret.

Note: The following is a list of the names of all the people who did the work of tracking down the original context of these quotes: Jon (Augray) Barber, Mike Dunford, Lenny Flank, "Floyd," Stanley Friesen, "Dr.GH," Tracy P. Hamilton, "Hier05ant," Mike Hopkins, Sverker Johansson, Laurence A. Moran, J. (catshark) Pieret, "Tom," Tom (TomS) Scharle, Deanne (Lilith) Taylor, C. Thompson, Dana Tweedy, Mark VandeWettering, "Professor Weird," David Wilson, and John Wilkins.

By far, the most dogged contributor was Jon (Augray) Barber who replied to 29 quotes, many of them hard to find. We particularly want to thank him.

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  1. <http://groups.google.com/groups?selm=3f355ee.0302282258.1a8bdd11@posting.google.com>

  2. Henry Morris' 500 page book of quotes, That Their Words May Be Used Against Them, with some sample pages, can be seen at Amazon Books: That Their Words May Be Used Against Them.

    There have been other such books:

    Over twenty years ago, in 1977, an unusual book appeared on the scene. Authored by creationist Robert Kofhal, and published by the Creation-Science Research Center in San Diego, California, it bore the catchy title, Handy Dandy Evolution Refuter. In its 157 pages, this mass market paperback provided almost 200 valuable quotations from the writings of prominent evolutionists . . . Seven years later, in 1984, the Creation Science Foundation of Australia published a thin, 8x11-inch booklet of 20 pages that bore the title, The Quote Book. Compiled by John MacKay and co-workers, this volume provided over 100 quotations . . .

    That Their Words May Be Used Against Them, Reason & Revelation, October 1998, 18[10]:80.

    The Creation Science Foundation of Australia became Answers in Genesis and is selling the The Revised Quote Book to this day.

    And here is just a small sampling of the many creationist lists of quotes similar to Anointed One's that can be found on the web:

  3. According to Google the first use of the term in talk.origins was in a posting by Lenny Flank, dated March 30, 1997 from which I quote:

    "How about (1) there is no scientificically valid data or evidence at all to support creationism---not one single solitary shred, (2) in general, creationist "research" consists solely of quote-mining and speech-making, none of which contains any scientific data for creation, and (3) no creationist, alive or dead, has ever put forth any scientific theory of creation that was not based directly on divine revelation or religious faith."

    There is one earlier reference (February 2, 1996) in rec.arts.comics.misc.

    From 1997 on the term is popular, particularly in talk.origins which accounts for 3636 out 4270 hits. [Thanks to Richard Harter for this research.]

  4. See "Response? What Response?: How Dembski has avoided addressing my arguments" by Richard Wein, in the section "5.5 Predictive Power of Darwinian Evolution" at: <http://www.talkorigins.org/design/faqs/nfl/replynfl.html>.

  5. <http://groups.google.com/groups?selm=b5janq$28vkqt$1@ID-35161.news.dfncis.de>

  6. <http://groups.google.com/groups?selm=1fsa9ew.1fyl3tvdvvnddN%25john.wilkins@bigpond.com>

  7. Only 6 (quote #9, quote #27, quote #46, quote #54, quote #61 and quote #73) can be said (using very generous standards) to be in context and not otherwise bogus for the reasons enumerated above. That means that the creationists responsible for this list are batting a pathetic .070 (7%).

  8. Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge, as the originators of "Punctuated Equilibria" (as discussed at length in the various responses) are the subject of many of the quote-mines in this particular list and are frequent targets of this practice by creationists, since, to those only vaguely familiar with evolutionary theory, their pronouncements may appear to be anti-evolutionary. Darwin, himself, is also a common target, because of his usual rhetorical approach of asking a seemingly damning question and then answering it, which, when the answer is omitted, may sound like a concession on his part.

  9. Answers in Genesis: <http://www.answersingenesis.org/>

  10. <http://groups.google.com/groups?selm=1frgjfi.1ld2eanm2zla9N%25wilkins@wehi.edu.au>

  11. Under the heading "How did life begin" and just before the link to "Quotes by Famous Evolutionists" at: <http://www.anointed-one.net/begin.html>.

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