Thursday, July 27, 2006

Quote-mining

Anyone familiar with the arguments of creationists seeking to denigrate evolutionary theory is familiar with quote-mining, an intellectually dishonest tactic where quotes from scientists are taken out of context in order to show that scientists themselves cast doubt on evolution. Talk Origins, a website devoted to evolution/creationism, defines quote-mining thusly:

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."
The classic example of quote-mining is the creationist claim that Charles Darwin did not believe that evolution could account for the human eye, which they bolster with the following quote from The Origin of Species (1859):

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.
Ok, sounds like Darwin thought evolution explaining the eye was absurd. But here's how the quote appears 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 degree. When it was first said that the sun stood still and the world turned round, the common sense of mankind declared the doctrine false; but the old saying of Vox populi, vox Dei ["the voice of the people = the voice of God "], as every philosopher knows, cannot be trusted in science. Reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a simple and imperfect eye to one complex and perfect can be shown to exist, each grade being useful to its possessor, as is certain the case; if further, the eye ever varies and the variations be inherited, as is likewise certainly the case; and if such variations should be useful to any animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, should not be considered as subversive of the theory.
Obviously, Darwin is in fact expressing the opposite of what creationists who snip the context of the quote suggest. One can see how fundamentally dishonest such a practice is.

Today, PZ Myers directs our attention to an Op-Ed in the New York Times by a scientist who has been quote-mined by global warming skeptics (like Ann Coulter and Michael Crichton) to make the case that the Earth is not warming. Peter Moran, the author of the piece, points out that his work does not suggest that and that he does not dispute global warming.

My research colleagues and I found that from 1996 to 2000, one small, ice-free area of the Antarctic mainland had actually cooled. Our report also analyzed temperatures for the mainland in such a way as to remove the influence of the peninsula warming and found that, from 1966 to 2000, more of the continent had cooled than had warmed. Our summary statement pointed out how the cooling trend posed challenges to models of Antarctic climate and ecosystem change.

Newspaper and television reports focused on this part of the paper. And many news and opinion writers linked our study with another bit of polar research published that month, in Science, showing that part of Antarctica’s ice sheet had been thickening — and erroneously concluded that the earth was not warming at all. “Scientific findings run counter to theory of global warming,” said a headline on an editorial in The San Diego Union-Tribune. One conservative commentator wrote, “It’s ironic that two studies suggesting that a new Ice Age may be under way may end the global warming debate.”

In a rebuttal in The Providence Journal, in Rhode Island, the lead author of the Science paper and I explained that our studies offered no evidence that the earth was cooling. But the misinterpretation had already become legend, and in the four and half years since, it has only grown.
Although it can result from deliberate dishonesty, quote-mining is primarily an error of methodology. It is a form of "cherry-picking" where a person just looks for information that confirms his/her beliefs, and it results from a disregard for careful consideration of the evidence. Anyone who cares about honest discourse and respecting the intellectual work of others should take care to check their source to see if it says what they think it says before using it to make a case that the quote does not actually make.

7 comments:

gawker said...

Reminds me of that television commercial for National Insurance where some guy is driving to the instructions of his GPS device. As the device tells him "Turn left.." he immediately turns left, smashing into a restaurant. The device continues to speak "....in 100 feet".

Hume's Ghost said...

And that reminds me of this Fuzzy Memory (excerpted)by Jack Handey

I remember I was hammering on a fence in the backyard when Dad approached. He was carrying a letter or something in his hand, and he looked worried.

I continued to hammer as he came toward me. "Son," he said, "why are you hammering on that fence? It already has plenty of nails in it."

"Oh, I'm not using nails," I replied. "I'm just hammering." With that, I returned to my hammering.

Dad asked me to stop hammering, as he had some news. I did stop hammering, but first I got a couple more hammers in, and this seemed to make Dad mad.

"I said, stop hammering!" he yelled.

I think he felt bad for yelling at me, especially since it looked like he had bad news. "Look," he said, "you can hammer later, but first--"

Well, I didn't even wait to hear the rest. As soon as I heard "You can hammer," that's what I started doing. Hammering away, happy as an old hammer dog.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Quote minings is not just an error of methodology. It is an error in moral character.

The best we can say of the quote miner is that he is intellectually reckless. Like the person who roars down a road at full speed anxious to get home to watch his television show, he cares nothing about those who might be hurt or killed by his actions. Therefore, he takes no care to prevent the harm that might be done.

Those who defend any proposition through "quote mining" are people who do not care about the harms that their fiction may do. They have an objective. They are going to reach it, and they care not who gets hurt.

Just as a morally responsible person is a careful driver to prevent doing harm to others, the morally responsible person does not make, and does not repeat, these reckless fictions. Because when people act on fictions, innocent people get hurt -- and some of them die.

Random Walker said...

I don't think many people doubt that we are experiencing a relative warming period, the controversy centers around what is the cause. If CO2 is the culprit, then what caused the medieval warming period, or any of the other warming periods? Why are the Martian ice caps melting?

Every time I read an article that breathlessly states that it hasn't been this warm in 400 years, or 1,000 years, or 10,000 years, I think it disproves CO2 as the culprit.

I also find it exceedingly annoying when every phenomenon in nature is blamed on global warming. Case in point is hurricanes. The global warming computer simulations call for a leveling of the temperature differential between the poles. This should reduce the number and severity of hurricanes.

Is Dr. Richard Lindzen, the Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Lindzen, a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and one of the world's leading climatologists, in on this right wing conspiracy?

Hume's Ghost said...

Everything else aside, you are talking at me, not to me. Nothing you just said relates whatsoever to what I wrote.

A search at Real Climate would answer any of your questions, however.

Random Walker said...

Nope, Dr. Lindzen is recognized as the leading expert on hurricanes, and he disagrees with "Real Climate". What about all the historical warm periods?

Hume's Ghost said...

You seemed to have missed the admonition I gave previously. What does a debate over whether or not anthropogenic global warming is occurring have to do with the subject of this post?

And Dr. Lindzen may disagree with the climate scientists at Real Climate, but in science arguments from authority don't hold much weight.

Lindzen disagreeing with RC doesn't change the fact that they do offer answers to the questions you ask. That you don't find the answers compelling, or don't mind that Lindzen's position is not well-supported in the climate literature ... there is nothing I can do about that.