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Thursday, May 24, 2007

"I've been workin in the quote mines, all the live-long daaaaay!"

One of the most interesting things about following the Intelligent Design carnival of illogic is its approach to rhetoric. It's safe to say, for example, that both Intelligent Design wackos and science advocates occasionally employ inflammatory language. This is a very serious debate, after all, and such debates almost always attract their fair share of caustic commentary. As such, the harshness of the debate isn't that interesting to me. Instead, what I find much more fascinating is the tendency of the I.D. folks to engage in what is known as "quote mining."

For those who don't know, "quote mining" is the practice of going through someone's published or recorded remarks and extracting some fragment that appears to either support your point or discredit theirs. Typical quote mining takes one of two forms which I designate* as "selective quotation" and "ellipses extravaganza." Selective quotation works by extracting a fragment of a real quote and presenting it without context. So, for example, if I were to say, "If most atheists reject religion solely because they don't like the music, then I would have to say that atheists are stupid," a quote miner engaging in selective quotation might write:

Graduate student Drek the Uninteresting remarks, "I would have to say that atheists are stupid."


Obviously, the quotation isn't exactly wrong but by removing the context the meaning changes quite a bit. This is a real problem as selectively quoting in this manner allows a person to support almost anything. In the rare occasions when selective quotation is inadequate, however, there remains the ellipses extravaganza, wherein a lengthy quotation can be re-written through the helpful use of ellipses. So, for example, if I were to say, "My great-grandfather's opinion as a supporter of eugenics was that we need to exterminate the mentally disabled. This view was based on an understanding of natural selection that was, we now recognize, as deeply and fundamentally flawed as the christian crusades and islamic jihads," then a helpful quote miner might produce:

Drek the Uninteresting, a staunch atheist, casts light on the true morals of atheists: "My ... opinion as a supporter of eugenics [is] that we need to exterminate the mentally disabled. This view [is] based on an understanding of natural selection..."


Once more, the meaning is radically altered by selectively omitting portions of the quotation. Granted, this seems like an extreme example but the reality is that it isn't all that extreme. As most people don't go to a lot of trouble to confirm quotations, even outright lies about what someone said are likely to be taken as the truth. Now, I claim that I.D. advocates engage in quote mining but you don't have to take my word for it. Over on the Panda's Thumb they make note of quite a few instances of quote mining. In a recent post on the subject they mention the Darwin Correspondence Project, which is an effort to make the sum total of Charles Darwin's writings and letters available electronically. Aside from being a superb resource for historians it also provides a valuable tool in defeating quote mining.

As an example, the thumbers point to a post on the blog of Sal Cordova- one of Wild Bill's lackeys- that quotes Darwin as follows:

I beat a puppy, I believe, simply from enjoying the sense of power.


Wow! Charles Darwin liked to beat puppies! My god! Maybe modern science really is soul-destroying! Praise Jesus!

Well, that's what I'm probably supposed to say. Instead, as the thumbers point out, with the aid of the Darwin Correspondence Project we can find the rest of that quote:

Once as a very little boy, whilst at the day-school, or before that time, I acted cruelly, for I beat a puppy I believe, simply from enjoying the sense of power; but the beating could not have been severe, for the puppy did not howl, of which I feel sure as the spot was near to the house. This act lay heavily on my conscience, as is shown by my remembering the exact spot where the crime was committed. It probably lay all the heavier from my love of dogs being then, and for a long time afterwards, a passion. Dogs seemed to know this, for I was an adept in robbing their love from their masters. [mined quote in bold]


Yes. Well. Quite different now, isn't it?

The Panda's Thumb often does a great job of shredding the quote mining buffoonery of the I.D. crowd but, believe it or not, every now and then the I.D. people do it themselves. Take for example the recent case of Guillermo Gonzalez, an astronomer at Iowa State University who was recently denied tenure. This, by itself, would be unremarkable except that Gonzalez is an outspoken advocate of intelligent design and has quite a few publications under his belt. The I.D. folks are, of course, screaming "discrimination," because as we all know there's a gigantic darwinist conspiracy in science.*** Now, the case is interesting. On the one hand Gonzalez has a superb publication record. On the other hand, his only grants since arriving at ISU have been from the Templeton Foundation (hardly devoted to Astronomy), he has published no papers since arriving at Iowa State, and has graduated no doctoral students. Did his advocacy of I.D. play a role in his denial of tenure? Well, probably, but as we all know tenure is a notoriously fickle process. At the same time, was he a clear-cut winner for tenure without the I.D.? Eh... not so much. Certainly not in a field like Astronomy where the number of possible hires vastly, vastly exceeds the number of postings. In my view the decision could be argued, but is not obviously a case of pure discrimination.

So how does this relate to quote mining? Well, the Chronicle of Higher Education recently ran a story on the matter that received some attention on Wild Bill's blog. That attention is hysterical to me, however, as it contains an obvious example of quote mining. How obvious, you ask? Well, take a look at the screenshot from my aggregator and tell me:


(Click the image for a larger more legible version.)

So, to sum up, the title of the post reads: "The Chronicle says of Gonzalez, 'A clear case of discrimination'"

But, if you read the first line of the article which is immediately below the headline: "At first glance, it seems like a clear-cut case of discrimination. [emphasis added]"

In fact, if you read the first few paragraphs of the Chronicle piece, you find a picture that is very much at odds with what the I.D.'ers are implying:

At first glance, it seems like a clear-cut case of discrimination. As an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Iowa State University, Guillermo Gonzalez has a better publication record than almost any other member of the astronomy faculty. He also happens to publicly support the concept of intelligent design. Last month he was denied tenure.

"I'm concerned that my views on intelligent design have been a factor," he said last week of the decision.

But a closer look at Mr. Gonzalez's case raises some questions about his recent scholarship and whether he has lived up to his early promise. He has appealed the university's tenure denial and is awaiting word from Iowa State's president, Gregory L. Geoffroy, who will issue a final decision by June 6, according to the university.


Not quite the "clear case of discrimination" we were supposed to believe it was, eh? Of course, what makes this so funny is that the I.D. folks managed to debunk their own mined quote in the process of presenting it. It's a little like playing poker and making a point of telling everyone when you're bluffing.

Now that's what I call service.


* I so designate them because, to the best of my knowledge, they have no formal names. Someone who is less ignorant than I am** should feel free to correct me.

** i.e. virtually anyone.

*** So help me if I ever find that someone has quote mined that...

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Quote-mining is unethical, of course, and usually the last refuge of scoundrels and idiots. But it doesn't take a rocket scientist (ha ha) to anticipate that the first line of the Chronicle article was ripe for misquoting. Seems like if the goal was to avoid being misquoted, the author could have chosen a different hook. (Of course, if the goal was to generate interest in the article in the blogosphere and/or set a trap for the ID wingnuts, the opening line was perfect.)

Thursday, May 24, 2007 11:23:00 AM  
Anonymous Mike said...

The author of this article is misinformed. Gonzales has published 17 papers or so since he has been at ISU. Spearheading the mission of finding two new planets, and writing a College level science book, among other things. He has published 68 papers in all, and has some 1500 citations on one and 1200 on another. If he doesn't deserve tenure, then who does? There is no rules stating that his published papers had to have been written while he was at ISU in order to be considered.

Thursday, May 24, 2007 9:11:00 PM  

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