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Quote-mining (Talk.Origins)

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Response Article
This article (Quote-mining (Talk.Origins)) is a response to a rebuttal of a creationist claim published by Talk.Origins Archive under the title Index to Creationist Claims.

Claim CA113:

Quotes from many non-creationist authorities show that evolutionists themselves find many various failures of evolution.


  • Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1985. Life--How Did It Get Here? Brooklyn, NY, pg. 15.
  • Various and numerous other sources.

CreationWiki response:

(Talk.Origins quotes in blue)

1. Quotes are very easy to misuse to give a false impression of what an author means. Many people develop their ideas over long passages, and no single quote can do justice to their argument. Many people, especially scientists, play devil's advocate with their own ideas, so some of their quotes will say exactly the opposite of the point they are supporting.

There is no problem with this. Everyone quoting others, whether creationists quoting evolutionists, journalists quoting their sources, or evolutionists quoting creationists have to be careful that the quote is fairly representing the person being quoted.

In other cases, good summary quotes exist, but the quoter is either unable or unwilling to find and use them.

This is argument by assertion. Talk.Origins would not know if a person is unwilling to find a better quote, and the quoter could hardly be blamed if he is unable to find a better quote.

It is extremely easy to find out-of-context quotes that do damage to a person's main ideas, even unintentionally. Quotes should probably be regarded with more skepticism than any other references.

As a general rule, readers should always be careful to check sources, whether just references or actual quotes. But quotes are a legitimate and frequently-used method of argument, used in many areas, including by both creationists and evolutionists. And quotes from a "hostile witness" can be very powerful arguments.

2. Creationists use quotes as appeals to authority. They apparently see the printed word as a weighty authority. In science, though, the ultimate authority is the evidence itself, so that is what writers refer to. Quotes cannot substitute for evidence.

An appeal to authority is not always wrong. It is legitimate where the person actually is an authority on the topic. Of course an appeal to an authority will never replace hard facts, but where the facts are lacking or disputed, an appeal to an appropriate authority is legitimate. And in many cases where the subject matter is subjective (for example, on the relevance of a particular fossil to human evolution) the quotes are used not as "appeals to authority" so much as "hard evidence" of the opinion of the expert being quoted, to show, for example, that not all evolutionists agree on a particular interpretation.

Appealing to authority is a misuse of quotations. The vast majority of good writing, when it refers to other people's work, summarizes the work and gives a reference to the original. In professional science writing, references are ubiquitous, but direct quotes are very rare.

When the subject is one of considerable disagreement, it is better to quote the authority's actual words than to summarise them in one's own words. There is a reduced risk of misrepresenting the authority when quoting him directly.

Summarizing someone's work, rather than quoting it, shows understanding. Many creationists are limited to quoting because they have no idea what the author really means.

This is an ad hominem attack.

In fact, most creationists probably repeat quotes without even having read the original author's work. Darwin's quote about the eye, for example, would never be repeated in its usual abbreviated form by an honest person who has read the pages that follow it. If a person cannot understand a work well enough to summarize it, he or she should not be talking about it at all.

The example Talk.Origins refers to is not as obvious as would be inferred from their comment, but that is an argument that creationists are advised not to use.

3. Even an accurate and in-context quote can be used to mislead. Many quotes are out of date, for example, and talk about our ignorance in areas of which we are no longer ignorant. Other quotes are from creationists, but they appear in a context that groups them with mainstream scientists.

This glosses over the fact that most quotes are still valid, and the vast majority are from evolutionists.

Many of Talk.Origins' criticisms are correct for some quotes, but do not explain away the vast majority of valid quotes used by creationists. And of course Talk.Origins and other anticreationists are not immune from the invalid use of quotes either.

Sadly there are cases where Talk Origins' criticism is—or has been—somewhat justified. The only explicit source given is from the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, which is the publication arm of the Jehovah's Witnesses. The Jehovah's Witnesses is a pseudo Christian cult which, while opposing evolution and (formerly) millions of years, is not a part of the mainstream creationist movement. Therefore, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society is not a good source of creationist material.

Fortunately the use of invalid quotes by creationists is becoming more and more rare as creationists have become more careful on the use of quotes.

It should be said also that there is a lot of mischaracterizations by anti-creationists of the use of quotes by creationists, usually in an attempt to show that the creationist did not understand the quote, or misused it. Though some creationists have often used quotes without understanding, possibly more often they are used precisely with understanding. As a corollary, anti-creationists also often commit this error.

One such place is in Talk.Origins' Quote Mine Project, from where the following example is taken. The example concerns the issue of the alleged misuse of Stephen Jay Gould's 'trade secret' quote:

In the quote, Steven Jay Gould referred to the abysmal shortage of transitional fossils in the fossil record as the "trade secret of paleontology". He has been furious that his quote has been "misrepresented" by creationists and design-advocates. At this link the Talk.Origins author, John Pieret, shows the quote in context, where Gould makes clear that this is evidence for his theory of "punctuated equilibrium".

To caricature this as a misunderstanding of what Gould "really" meant to say, merely shows a tendency toward missing the fact that actually reading the use of the text, as often as not, indeed reveals perfect understanding of the scientific ideas proposed, context included.

The obvious shortage of transitional forms in the fossil record is the salient fact recognized in this quote, and no amount of obfuscation claiming a "misuse of quotes" or a "misunderstanding" can hide that fact. See the following quote from the Institute for Creation Research to show that indeed the original meaning is understood and addressed by this major quoter (albeit not one mentioned by Talk.Origins as a source):

More than a century later the fossil record still does not fit Darwinian orthodoxy. Ironically, by admitting this "trade secret of paleontology" Harvard professor Stephen Jay Gould has achieved fame and glory. From Darwin forward, everywhere in the biological hierarchy researchers came to uncrossed chasms. Yet they pretend the gaps did not exist. This set the stage for Gould's saltational theory--an idea Darwin explicitly rejected.
Gould's idea is like the fantasies of Fred Hoyle and Francis Crick about extraterrestrial civilizations. While Gould, along with colleague Niles Eldredge, proposes miraculous sudden leaps in evolutionary progress, Hoyle and Crick propose panspermia--life seeds from some extra-terrestrial civilization. All such theories merely postpone thinking. Denton rejects them and concludes that perfect design implies supreme intelligence. But, unlike Gould, Eldridge, Hoyle, and Crick, he does not reach his own proposal by wild imagination, but by a ruthless application of logic. [1]