The deplorable practice of quote-mining

Scholarly articles tend to follow pretty much a four-step formula.

  1. The author identifies the problem being investigated, explains why it is of interest, and why it is important to find a solution.
  2. The previous solutions to the problem are discussed and reasons are given (in the form of evidence and arguments) as to why those earlier attempts are unsatisfactory.
  3. The author proposes a new solution to the problem and gives reasons (again in the form of evidence and arguments) why the new solution should be accepted.
  4. Other auxiliary problems will usually also be identified and addressed in the course of making the larger case.

In order to make the case that their research is important, scientists will often indulge in slight hyperbole in steps #1 and #2, exaggerating the importance of the problem and the difficulty of finding a solution as a way of making their own solution seem more significant. People who are familiar with scientific writing know the format, recognize the caveats, and realize that parts #1 and #2 are merely setting the stage, a form of throat clearing if you will, before getting to the meat of the paper, which consists of #3.

Scientific writing is also not polemical. By that I mean that many of the tricks used to win arguments in popular and political discourse are not of much use in science. This is because science proceeds slowly and since the merits of ideas are eventually judged by peers who have quite deep knowledge of the field, rhetorical tricks might get you some attention but will not usually win people over to your side. In particular, scientists do not indulge in ‘quote mining’, the deplorable practice act of taking other people’s words out of context and distorting their meaning. Misrepresenting someone else’s views is severely frowned upon so scientists tend not to worry that others will do it to them.

As a result, scientists do not write defensively, with an eye to preventing others from twisting their words to make them seem to be saying things they are not. This leaves them wide open to attacks by some religious apologists whose main strategy is to do precisely those things. Such opponents take advantage of the slightly hyperbolic style of stages #1 and #2 in scientific writing to distort the meaning. They act like politicians who routinely rip the words of their opponents out of context and make them seem to be saying the opposite of what they meant, a practice that is taboo in science.

Take for example the question of the origin of life. Religious people cling tenaciously to the idea that this is an insoluble mystery and hence god is needed to create it. They seek support for this view from the scientific community, even though much progress has been made in this area, and some stoop to quote mining to try and make their case. An article titled Origin of Life on Earth by Alonso Ricardo and Nobel-prize winning scientist Jack W. Szostak in the September 2009 of Scientific American begins:

Every living cell, even the simplest bacterium, teems with molecular contraptions that would be the envy of any nanotechnologist. As they incessantly shake or spin or crawl around the cell, these machines cut, paste and copy genetic molecules, shuttle nutrients around or turn them into energy, build and repair cellular membranes, relay mechanical, chemical or electrical messages—the list goes on and on, and new discoveries add to it all the time.

It is virtually impossible to imagine how a cell’s machines, which are mostly protein-based catalysts called enzymes, could have formed spontaneously as life first arose from nonliving matter around 3.7 billion years ago. [My emphasis-MS]

Anyone who is familiar with the way that scientific articles are written knows that the rest of the article is going to consist of one big ‘but’, where the authors proceed to show why it is not impossible after all and that in fact they have made great strides in understanding the process. The dead giveaway is the phrase ‘virtually impossible to imagine’. But if you glide over that phrase, you might get the impression that Alonso and Szostak are throwing up their hands in despair and saying that the origin of life is an insoluble mystery. But experienced readers of science articles know that what the authors are really saying is that although the problem is very hard, they are going to show how it might be solved and that is what the rest of the article is going to be about.

Via Jerry Coyne, I learned about a Rabbi Moshe Averick who took that opening paragraph by Alonso and Szostak and ran with it, thinking that he had scored a touchdown. This is what Averick says:

The argument that I put forth in my book, which Rabbi Jacobs also presented in his Huffington Post column, was that the simple reason why Origin of Life researchers are baffled in their attempts to find a naturalistic origin of life – as Noble Laureate Dr. Jack Szostak put it, “It is virtually impossible to imagine how a cell’s machines…could have formed spontaneously from non-living matter,” is because it is impossible for a cell’s machines to have formed spontaneously from non-living matter.

Averick got severely smacked around in the comments for his deceitfulness. But what must have really hurt was when Szostak’s wife Terri-Lynn McCormick also appeared there and responded furiously to this distortion of her husband’s work. First she said:

I do not know if you are lying or are incapable of understanding the article, but I suspect the former. Make no mistake, this kind of misrepresentation is a lie. When you say someone has said something that supports your argument when you know that the whole of his words undermine it, you are lying about what the person said. Civil discourse begins with honest engagement.

Then when Averick tried to weasel out of being caught quote mining, she responded again:

How dare you misrepresent my husband. Your quote from the Scientific American article blatantly distorts his meaning. It is virtually impossible to imagine the cell we know now to emerging from the pre-biotic earth. He and others have, over many years, been showing incrementally how an RNA cell might have been created on early earth. There is nothing in my husband’s work that suggests otherwise. It is quite sickening that you would try to make him, a steadfast rationalist and atheist, into a proponent for I.D. You are in complete disagreement with Prof. Jack Szostak. Unfortunately for you his opinion is backed up by facts and mountains of results from peer reviewed research.

Please refrain from misrepresenting his opinions or work again. We consider it slander.

This dishonest practice of religious apologists using the standard preamble of scientific writing in setting up their false arguments is not new. The most famous example is with Charles Darwin’s opening discussion of the eye (On the Origin of Species, 1st edition, p. 186)

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.

For a long time religious people used this passage to argue that even Darwin thought that the eye was truly beyond the ken of science and thus had to be an act of god. Nowadays only the hopelessly ignorant say such things because most people in the debate know that that passage is immediately followed by the inevitable ‘but’.

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.

Darwin then proceeded to lay out the evidence and arguments as to how the eye could have emerged by natural selection, and the process is now quite well understood.

Some scientists are becoming more wary of the possibility of being quote mined and try to write more defensively, at least when they are addressing the general public. This is a pity because it requires caveats and circumlocutions that clutter up the prose but perhaps it is necessary.

We can let Jesus & Mo have the last word.


  1. Owlmirror says

    A while back, I had been reading Thomas Aquinas, and when a creationist brought up the Darwin eye quote-mine, I pointed out that Aquinas wrote two paragraphs that concluded that God does not exist, and therefore could be quote-mined as being an atheist. Of course, Aquinas goes on to argue against those paragraphs.

    And of course, there’s also the ICR’s quote-mining of what you yourself wrote in Physics Today, June 2000 (spelling your name wrong by attributing it to “Singham, Mark”).

    And I use that trust to effectively brainwash them. . . . our teaching methods are primarily those of propaganda. We appeal—without demonstration—to evidence that supports our position. We only introduce arguments and evidence that supports the currently accepted theories and omit or gloss over any evidence to the contrary.

  2. Mano Singham says

    Yes, that was my first experience of being at the receiving end of quote mining! Again, it was interesting that scientists knew what I meant.

  3. M.Nieuweboer says

    What never fails to baffle me is how believers like Averick mock their own Holy Book. Exodus 20:16 and Deuteronomy 5:20 read

    “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.”

    Quote mining, every single form of misrepresenting the words of other people, is a form of false witness. The Bible does not provide any excuses, not even ignorance (something I would accept).
    Any creationist (after all they are all Abrahamists) who takes his/her religion seriously should conclude that he/she will go to hell.
    Sometimes I think these people sin just to justify their own stupid belief.

    I have seen (alas in Dutch) Stephen Hawking being quote-mined by a creationist, who concluded from A brief History of Time (chapter 8) that Hawking backs the fine-tuning argument (which according to him is equal to the anthropic principle).
    Scientists should not start writing defensively. It would rob me of many opportunities to expose religious hypocrisy, which has become a hobby of mine last few years.
    I refer to the end of The Who’s Tommy:

    We’re not gonna take it.

  4. Agathades Van Wyk says

    I read your online-post with great interest. Yes, I agree that the so-called “quote-mining” is wrong, however, may I with all due respect ask you if you, and many scientist also, are not doing the same thing. No, not at all! Why not? Because you use different criteria for others?
    One of the comments on your article states: “Sometimes I think these people sin just to justify their own stupid belief.” No, this is not “quote-mining” but a great arrogance and ignorance that even set your supporters beyond “quote-mining.”

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