Monday 3 September 2012

Quote mining

One lesson that university professors tried to teach me and that didn’t really sink in until I left university, was the importance of defending every point I made in a formal essay.  You can’t write common knowledge without attributions or citations.  Controversial claims require even more careful citations.

But there are ways to “game” the citations.  An obvious way is to attribute the claim to an non-existent author or scientific article and hope no one researches the citation.  This is risky and there is a more plausible-seeming trick. Find a quote from a scientific article that is close to what you want and changing it as little as possible until it fits your ends.  Or find a quote that means one thing in context and another out of context.  This is quote mining.

The classic example of using a quote out of context is mis-use of the full title of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection.  The sub-title is “ or, the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”.  Hmm, “favoured races”, that sounds like something Hitler would say.  People have used this title to claim the book defends racism in humans.  The fact is, the book does not describe humans at all, but does use ‘race’ as we use ‘breed’ (of dogs, for example) today.

The Quote Mine Project at Talk Origins looks at several mined quotes that have been slightly altered or taken out of context to cast doubt on the theory of evolution that does not exist.  At the link in this paragraph (or here), John Wilkins states,

[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.

One of my goals on this blog is to point out common creationist errors that continue to this day, so let me describe five examples.  The first, at the Norwich Bulletin, Cal Lord, and only a few days old, misquotes Nobel Prize winner, George Wald:

I will not accept that philosophically because I do not want to believe in God. Therefore, I choose to believe in that which I know is scientifically impossible.

This quote does not exist but was used on August 30, 2012 and elsewhere.  Many, many places elsewhere and it is precisely the sort of thing everyone should want to remove.

Creationists, tear down this fabricated quote!

Second, and far more widely abused, is Darwin’s quote on the evolution of the eye.

From chapter 6 of On The Origin of 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. (Darwin 1872)

The quote is halfway down the page or about halfway through the chapter.

A creationist coworker struggled to put special meaning into the word “seems”.  I take it to mean something along the lines of “appears to be but may not be”, but ...well, I can’t remember his exact words and it would be rude claim too much fidelity when I found his claim ridiculous.  It seemed to me that he claimed  that up until the time Darwin wrote that sentence, we did in fact find eye evolution absurd, but immediately afterward found a workaround.  I must have this wrong but this was what I understood.

The problem for creationists is that in reading even one sentence , even one word further, suggests that this was a rhetorical point, much as one asks a rhetorical question just before answering it.

The next word is “Yet” and like “on the other hand” or “but” or “however” it shows he might not hold the position he eloquently described.

Alright, here is the sentence starting with “yet”:
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.

He goes on to describe several of those steps and examples of precursors to the mammalian eye that exist today.

The offending quote, suggesting that Darwin did not believe that a modern eye could evolve can be found in many places.  Here are some:

Huse, Scott. 1996. The Collapse of Evolution and quoted on Wikiquote.
Evolution of Truth mostly states that Darwin was only offering an example of what could show his theory to be wrong, but their response is bizarre.
The Christian Courier accepts the quote.
mtgriffith is happy to accept the quote and cites its use back in 1975.

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