Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Expelled and Quote Mines

A “quote mine” is a quote which has been taken out of context. A quote mine is distinct from a generic out of context quote in that a quote mine is generally taken from a famous person. Thus, quote mining makes an implied argument from authority. Frequently, the individual whose quote is mined is not a reputable authority on the subject in questions Purveyors of pseudoscience and other fringe ideas they frequently quote mine scientists. Creationists are very fond of quote mining.

One of the most famous quote mines is Charles Darwin’s comment about the human eye. The quote mind is:

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.

This quote is from the sixth chapter of The Origin of Species. Immediately after this quote, Darwin goes into great detail describing just how the eye could in fact have formed by natural selection. This is thus an excellent example of a quote mine; it is both out of context and relies on an argument from authority. Like many quote mines, the authority in question is poor; in this case, Darwin died over a century ago. Given the nature of scientific progress, it is laughable that this 100 year old quote is persuasive evidence.

Quote mines are common occurrences in creationist circles. There are entire books of quote mines including Andrew Snelling’s The Revised Quote Book. Snelling’s book includes quotes from modern biologists; the implication is that biologists readily admit the failings of evolution when they are only talking to other biologists in their obscure journals. Many of Snelling’s quotes are either misquoted, woefully out of context or unpersuasive for other reasons.

Why do people engage in quote mines? Many people who have discussed this issue think that quote mines are attributable to malice and deliberate dishonesty.[i] This view is inaccurate. While some quote-mines may be due to dishonesty, there are three causes which are more common: poor reading comprehension, sloppiness, and differing epistemological premises. This last is the least well-recognized cause of quote mining.

Proof-texts are short passages or snippets from a holy text (typically the Bible) used to substantiate some proposition. They frequently have little connection to the general context of the passage. Many different religions including many forms of Christianity and Judaism use proof-texts. If someone comes from an epistemology where proof-texts are a valid way of using holy texts, then quoting with little regard to the general context for other documents is an understandable next step.[ii] Thus, if we wish to stop quote mining, we need to explain to people that science operates under a different epistemology.

Why am I thinking about quote mines? As readers may recall, I reviewed Ben Stein’s Expelled when it was in theaters. Recently while I was in Blockbuster, I saw that Expelled was on sale. I had already seen the movie and saw no good reason to buy a copy. But then a note on the cover caught my attention. The DVD came with a free book of quotations. Of course, I had to buy a copy.

The book does not disappoint. The book, entitled, “The Wonder of the Universe,” is more of a small pamphlet than an actual book. Each page has a single quote in the middle of the page with the rest of the page blank. The entire content could fit on a single sheet of 8 ½ by 11 paper if both sides are used. The quotes are poorly formatted with occasional errors of punctuation and no details of citation other than the author’s name.

What is really interesting is the authors of the quotes and their content. Slightly under half of the quotes in the book come from the Founding Fathers of the United States or from other respected US politicians such as Abraham Lincoln. There is a dearth of quotes from scientists. The most modern scientist quoted, Steinmetz, died in 1923. He is in fact the most recent author cited.

The quotes themselves fall primarily into two broad categories, quotes trumpeting the importance of free exchange and quotes arguing for the existence of God using the standard argument that “X is complicated so X must have been designed by God.” X is life, the stars, or various other entities. Examples of the first type include a quote from Steinmetz that “No man really becomes a fool until he stops asking questions.” An example of the second type is a quote attributed to George Washington stating that “It is impossible to account for the creation of the universe without the agency of a Supreme Being.”

I’m not sure I understand what Stein and his compatriots intended with this book. The point of the quotes about free inquiry is clear, given Stein’s repeated claims that ID proponents are subject to censorship. I am however puzzled how he thinks that George Washington’s opinion is at all relevant when Washington was not a scientist or even a philosopher, but rather a general and President.

I’m forced to conclude that Stein or whichever of Stein’s colleagues compiled this book thinks that the Founders of the United States were so intelligent and saintly that ideas held by them must be given special weight. This is a bit odd since the book also includes the standard quote from Galileo that “In questions of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual.”

Ben: Please make up your mind. Do authorities matter or does reasoning?

A few quotes and authors stand out particularly. There is a quote from Marquis de Vauvenargues. This attempt to appear erudite by quoting a somewhat obscure author fails when one notices that there is another quote from de Vauvenargues. One gets the impression that the compiler used some preexisting book of quotations, skimmed through and saw that there was not one, but two quotes that he could use from de Vauvenargues.

One of the two quotes from de Vauvenargues is that “Great thoughts come from the heart.” This quote does not fit either of the two categories of quotes. However, it reinforces the idea suggested by Alan in the comments thread to the Expelled review that the makers of Expelled object to science because they dislike reason and logic; Stein and his colleagues want appeal to emotion, not reason. This is reinforced by producer Walt Ruloff’s admission that he and others involved in Expelled’s production found attempts to incorporate more science into the movie to be “boring.” Stein and Ruloff: You are welcome to find science boring, but then don’t try to interfere with what the scientists are doing, and don’t whine when the scientists look down on you. And I’m not even going to bother discussing how this attitude also contradicts the earlier quote from Galileo. Consistency is not this book’s strong suit.

One quote from John Locke stands out: “We cannot fathom the mystery of a single flower. Nor is it intended that we should.” This attitude in nutshell is why scientists object to ID as a showstopper. This attitude is an objection to the entire scientific enterprise. Science tries to understand the world around us. And it does a very good job of it. Indeed, since Locke died, we’ve developed a very detailed understanding of flowers. We understand their water uptake. We understand their cells in great detail (cells were not discovered until centuries after Locke). When Locke died, oxygen wasn’t even known, so the basics of plant metabolism were unknown. We’ve done a very good job understanding flowers, thank you very much. If this quote does anything at all, it undermines claims that science cannot succeed, that it cannot develop models and explanations for the wonders of the universe.People who make absolute claims otherwise are frequently proven wrong.[iii]

The age of the quotes is also puzzling. Either Ben Stein was unable to find any quotes from scientists in the last hundred years who support what he has to say or he has some sort of inverted view of how science works, where the older the statement the more authoritative it is. If that is the case, Ben should have just gone and quoted Psalms 53:1 where David says that, “The fool has said in his heart `There is no God.’” That’s about 2000 years older than John Locke or George Washington. Therefore, it is much more authoritative.

Ben, I’m disappointed. I was hoping when I picked up this book that it would contain quotes from modern biologists like those favored by Snellings. I’d have to go and track down the original quotes to find the correct context. But this isn’t even worth it. Even if this book contained any specific claims about biology or cosmology or any branch of science (which it doesn’t), they’d be irrelevant given their great age.

If great thoughts come from the heart, this book is definitely from somewhere else.

Update: The quote attributed to Locke by the book is not due to Locke but rather to John Ruskin. See Glenn Branch's remark below. Apparently Ben did not even manage to attribute claims to the correct authors.

[i] See for example the discussion at the Talk Origin Archive’s Quote Mine Project.

[ii] Not all groups fond of quote mining necessarily come from a religious background (for example HIV-AIDS denialists) but there are likely similar implicit misunderstandings of how science functions.

[iii] I will resist making a direct comparison between Ben Stein and Locke because that is an insult to Locke’s memory. Locke’s comment was made at the beginning of the scientific revolution. Ben Stein’s claims about evolution are made after biologists have spent a hundred and fifty years researching evolution in great detail.


Anonymous said...

The passage attributed to Locke is actually from John Ruskin, for what it's worth.

Joshua said...

Thanks for that pointer Glenn. I guess I assumed that they had engaged in the minimum amount of care to actually get their authors correct. I should not have made that assumption.

Etienne Vouga said...

Minor technical issue: when I click on the numerals that link to your footnotes, instead of taking me to the footnotes I get a message from Blogger wanting me to log in.

Lautreamont said...


When did Ben Stein become a conservative, anti-intellectual, Christian drone? Didn't he go Harvard? Didn't he at one time actually support the science he is now attempting to undermine? Then again, I think he was a speech writer for Nixon so I suppose Stein always found mendacity to be man's greatest virtue. I think Dostoevsky argues this in Crime and Punishment.

To be honest I didn't even know that this movie existed but after reading the official site I can not help but be, literally, revolted by his frighteningly backward view. You make a good point in your entry as to one very germane aspect: being that Stein in this movie and in his book of quotes is NOT only attacking the science of evolution but attacking the entire action of critical scrutiny and scientific questioning. Science, as Dawkins correctly asserts, alters a theory the very second something disproves it. With ID there is no such adjustment. We can stop here for this reason, alone, shows science not to be an "orthodoxy" a "monopoly" or a "Big Science" at all, but simply a title given to the act of constant and careful scrutiny. The ignorance Stein propagates would send this country back centuries.

Also, anyone who thinks this country was founded on religion (as I suppose Stein is attempting to assert by quoting Washington) need only read the writings of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, or the Constitution.

Joshua said...

Etienne, it looks like blogger is mishandling end notes for some reason. It seems to be happening for older posts as well. The html looks fine.

Anonymous said...

"No man really becomes a fool until he stops asking questions."

Nah. A man can also become a fool when he makes up answers to questions because he doesn't like the answers he gets.

Ted Herrlich said...

Excellent post. I've blogged some about quote-mining before and used one example from Stein's mockumentary -- but including a whole book of quote mines is simply unbelievable! Well I guess it should be unbelievable, but after seeing Stein's little abortion, there is nothing he and the distributors will not stoop too, no act too reprehensible to use for marketing their unsupportable position.

Ames said...

Josh, it's Ames, we once met up at Conservapedia: I didn't know you had this blog! Good show.

Joshua said...

Ted, the thing that continually amazes me about Stein's movie is not the level they have stooped to but the overall lack of competency. There's incredible sloppiness and all around stupidity here as Glenn Branch's comment above about incorrect attribution amply demonstrates.

Ames, I've only been doing this for a few months so when we ran into each other back on Andrew's website I wasn't doing this yet. If I had, I assure you I would found a wait to let you know about it (hooray for self-promotion).

Hepius said...

It drives me nuts when people try to use the Founding Fathers to support the concept of the United States as a Christian nation. Many were Deists at best and clearly did their utmost to keep religion out of our government.

Lautreamont, you could add James Madison to your list. The Father of our Constitution absolutely supported the separation of church and state.

Anonymous said...

So, Stein's cadre publishes a single page's worth of quotations and calls it a book.

Mountains from molehills, indeed!

We are not surprised.

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