Exposing PseudoAstronomy

December 3, 2009

Logical Fallacies and Fallacious Arguing: Quote Mining


Introduction

I’m going to interrupt my purely logical fallacies series to do one on a related idea, fallacious arguing. The difference that I’m drawing here is that there are still ways of arguing that are “wrong” or misleading without actually being formal logical flaws. The case I’m addressing here is that of “Quote Mining.”

What is “Quote Mining?”

In yet another aptly named term, quote mining is when you search for a quote – any actual statement – that someone has said, and then use it out of the actual context in order to imply that it meant something else.

In a completely contrived example, I could state, “The United States of America is a wonderful country where its citizens enjoy many freedoms. We have freedom of and from religion, the right to freely assemble, freedom of the press and speech, and we have the freedom to petition (something that I used in 10th grade to get an unpopular program removed from my high school). However, in recent years, this has come under attack by many people who claim that we are a Christian nation and they interpret the First Amendment to mean that everyone has the freedom to practice and promote their religion in all places at all times.”

Someone could then quote-mine that statement and claim that I said: “The United States of America … [has a First Amendment] that everyone has the freedom to practice and promote their religion in all places at all times.”

Grammatically, that is a perfectly valid thing to do. However, it has completely changed what I was arguing, and hence quote mining is a fallacious way to argue a point.

Example from Young-Earth Creationism

There are a tremendous number of examples of quote mining across nearly all fields of, well, anything. One might think of lawyers, politicians, and news reporters as some of the most prolific quote miners around.

Because of this, I’m not going to look too hard to try to find one, but rather I will use one that very clearly illustrates the idea from a presentation I gave about young-Earth creationist claims about astronomy (and geology).

The particular claim was made by Kent Hovind in his “Creation Science Evangelism” series, Disk 6 part 1. Hovind was trying to claim that Earth’s magnetic field has never reversed polarity (the magnetic “pole flip” that has many people worried for 2012). In order to bolster this claim, he used an apparent Argument from Authority (another logical fallacy) from a Science paper from 1979. The quote was: “It is clear that the simple model of uniformly magnetized crustal blocks of alternating polarity does not represent reality.”

That statement seems pretty damning. We’ll ignore that it’s been 30 years since that statement was made and that science changes with new evidence, since this is a clear example of quote mining. Fortunately, Hovind provides the reference and I was able to look up the article (Hall, J.M., and P.T. Robinson. (1979). “Deep Crustal Drilling in the North Atlantic Ocean.” Science, 204, pp. 573-586.). The VERY NEXT SENTENCE of that article reads, “Clear reversals of polarity with depth are observed.”

In other words, Hovind used the first sentence to claim that these authors were arguing that the entire model of alternating magnetic polarity embedded in the ocean crust is false. Rather, when put into context, we can see that the authors were rather arguing that the simple slab model of alternating magnetic polarity is not accurate, that they do see alternating polarity, but you need a more complicated model than a simple brick-like approach.

Final Thoughts

Through quote mining, one can effectively make anyone say almost anything. It’s an unfortunate thing, but nearly everyone does it. By leaving out context or by using enough ellipses (the “…”), it’s very difficult to actually know if what someone is “supposed” to have said is what they meant. This is especially the case in print media (newspapers, magazines, etc.), but even with video, a good editor can make it appear as though someone has said something that they did not mean.

The fallacious method of quote mining is definitely something to watch for.

With that said, I would like to try to reassure my readers that when I have used quotes from sources that I argue against, I have tried to not fall into this fallacy. That is partly why I provide links back to the original sources, or I provide references, if possible, so that you can go back to the source to check it for yourself.

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