That "Quote Mining" Monkey Business

by Cowboy Bob Sorensen

Anti-creationists make false charges of "quote mining"There was a time when people would cite something, give a reference, and that was that. If there was an inaccuracy, it would be calmly pointed out and corrected. Not so much on the Internet anymore.

Sometimes creationists produce quotes from evolutionists who admit doubts about their belief systems, their commitment to naturalism, flaws in their process and so on. We can almost guarantee that atheists and anti-creationists will cry, "Quote mining!" Naturally, they'll quote mine the Bible up one side and down the other, but never mind about that now.

Quote mining is finding a quote or phrase and lifting it out of context for misleading purposes. It is essentially making someone say something contrary to what he or she really meant, and twisting it for your own purposes. It's similar to selective citing, and all of this is related to the straw man fallacy. Most of the time when I've seen the accusation of quote mining, it is because someone doesn't like the straightforwardness of an evolutionist or atheist against evolution or atheism. On the other hand, I've seen owlhoots that take creationists out of context and misrepresent us by leaving out parts of conversations or putting words in our mouths. This was done to not only poison the well against the individuals (and creationists in general), but to lead into ad hominem attacks.

Do creationists do quote mining? Odds are that they have to some extent. More importantly, did they quote mine an evolutionist to make him look like he's becoming a creationist? I haven't seen that, and I've been above dirt for a few decades. What I've seen on both sides of the fence is when people will give an incorrect reference, use an inexact quote — or worse, just pass along information on the Web that they never checked out. Those are usually innocent mistakes, and occasional carelessness.

“There are only two possibilities as to how life arose. One is spontaneous generation arising to evolution; the other is a supernatural creative act of God. There is no third possibility. Spontaneous generation, that life arose from non-living matter was scientifically disproved 120 years ago by Louis Pasteur and others. That leaves us with the only possible conclusion that life arose as a supernatural creative act of God. I will not accept that philosophically because I do not want to believe in God. Therefore, I choose to believe in that which I know is scientifically impossible; spontaneous generation arising to evolution.”  George Wald

The above text graphic is a quote from George Wald. It is cited from an issue of Scientific American from 1957 (there are some variations on the issue number, month and year). It is widely circulated on the Web (see 1, 2, and this message to Bill Nye 3 for starters). Some atheopaths express their hatred and ignorance at the same time with profane retorts 4. The quote has also been used whole or in part in printed books (see 5, 6, 7, 8, for instance).

Back a spell, I wrote to a creation science ministry:
How do you deal with charges of "quote mining"? When we used an extensive quote from George Wald about how he chose to believe in spontaneous generation, even though it was scientifically impossible, we were accused of taking it out of context. Some even said it was fabricated, never said that in 1954's Scientific American. What do you do with such accusations?
To paraphrase their reply: There's nothing wrong with using quotes from evolutionists as long as we don't rip them from context. If we quote Stephen Jay Gould where he said there is no evidence of transitions in the fossil record, that's fine. But if we say that he's denying evolution, then we're in the wrong. When they claim we're quote mining, they need to back up their claims; after all, our society believes in "innocent until proven guilty".

EDIT: From the "Wish I'd Said That Department", this just in:
When the quote is provided and the source is cited and the quote mine charge is given, is the burden of proof of the accuser to provide the full context AND demonstrate that it was taken out of context.
Have I ever laid eyes on the original or a scan of that Wald quote? Nope. Is it a real quote, or something that has been made into a kind of legend that gets passed around? There are owlhoots that will flat-out accuse the quoter of lying, making up the quote or using fake material. But I have never seen someone produce a scan of the original. Frankly, when they say, "The real quote is...", it sounds like they are making stuff up themselves. They could be citing the wrong document (remember, there are different references given for the source) 9.

Is the quote real? By my way of reckoning, yes it is. I don't know if it would stand up in court, but I have a few reasons:
  • Scientific American, Harvard University (he was a professor there), his relatives and other people would probably have filed lawsuits
  • Christian authors are not "Liars for Jesus", despite the claims of riders on the Owlhoot Trail. Just use a bit of sensibility. They want you to consider evidence for the holy Creator God, who hates lying. Is he going to approve of dishonesty to trick you into getting your sins forgiven? Not hardly!
  • Accusations are not refutations, nor are contradictions. 
  • Since he lived until 1997 and the quote was around for several decades before his death, Wald probably had opportunities to refute alleged quote miners.
  • An author claims to have discussed this quote with George Wald, and there is no rebuttal 10, 11. Yes, I realize that this is verging on the argument from silence when I mention there's no rebuttal, but the fact that someone discusses correspondence with Wald adds to the overall weight of things to consider.
There is another reason that I think this quote may be real. In a way, it makes the earlier debate about quote mining pointless because many of the same principles are reaffirmed later! In the Scientific American book of articles called Molecules to Living Cells, 12 an article by Wald appears with a similar quote:
We tell this story [of how spontaneous generation has been disproved] to beginning students of biology as though it represents a triumph of reason over mysticism. In fact it is very nearly the opposite. The reasonable view was to believe in spontaneous generation; the only alternative, to believe in a single, primary act of supernatural creation. There is no third position. For this reason many scientists a century ago chose to regard the belief in spontaneous generation as a "philosophical necessity." It is a symptom of the philosophical poverty of our time that this necessity is no longer appreciated. Most modern biologists, having reviewed with satisfaction the downfall of the spontaneous generation hypothesis, yet unwilling to accept the alternative belief in special creation, are left with nothing.

I think a scientist has no choice but to approach the origin of life through a hypothesis of spontaneous generation. What the controversy reviewed above showed to be untenable is only the belief that living organisms arise spontaneously under present conditions. We have now to face a somewhat different problem: how organisms may have arisen spontaneously under different conditions in some former period, granted that they do so no longer.
He is appealing to his philosophical bias instead of logic, and has some flaws in there. Wald uses some loaded words by calling religion "mysticism" and calling materialism "reason", and implies the untrue but popular opinion that there is a war between "science" and "religion". He even plays a victim card when he laments that the "philosophical poverty of our time" is the rejection of spontaneous generation, even though it has been disproved, because he will not accept special creation. From there, he went to the completely unscientific assumption that unobserved and disproved spontaneous generation should not be rejected in favor of creation because it may have happened "under different conditions in some former period". This goes against the law of biogenesis 13.

So, I've tackled two items here. First, the accusations of quote mining are often a dodge from anti-creationists because they do not want to deal with the truth, and they do not substantiate their accusations. Second, the George Wald quote is probably real. Even if someone proves it to be inaccurate, the verifiable quote I have provided above shows his determination to believe something unscientific because he refuses to believe in Creation. Of course, I reckon he's a young earth creationist now, since he died in 1997 and had a face-to-face meeting with his Creator.

Do we quote evolutionists? Sure, nothing wrong with that. Will proponents of evolution object? Be sure they will. But contradiction and denial are not refutations. Calling us liars without evidence makes them into liars. Have them back up their claims.