Tuesday, July 11, 2006


Gee Whiz, A Quote Mine

The folks over at the Discovery Institute have been working the quote mines again, leaving nothing but scant tailings of their intellectual and moral integrity.
Latest victim of note is Henry Gee, biologist and editor at Nature, who has complained about being used by Jonathan Witt as follows:

Henry Gee, chief science writer for Nature... [wrote:] "No fossil is buried with its birth certificate" ... and "the intervals of time that separate fossils are so huge that we cannot say anything definite about their possible connection through ancestry and descent." It's hard enough, with written records, to trace a human lineage back a few hundred years. When we have only a fragmentary fossil record, and we're dealing with millions of years -- what Gee calls "Deep Time" -- the job is effectively impossible... Gee concludes: "To take a line of fossils and claim that they represent a lineage is not a scientific hypothesis that can be tested, but an assertion that carries the same validity as a bedtime story -- amusing, perhaps even instructive, but not scientific."

As Gee puts it:
I have become somewhat irked lately at the way that some creationists continue to attribute beliefs to me to which I do not subscribe. For example, creationists of the 'intelligent design' tendency have used my book Deep Time (sold in the US as In Search of Deep Time) to suggest that whereas I don't support their views, my own work somehow legitimises them . . .
He notes a previous correction of this quote mine and then gives a long email exchange he had with Witt, which is well worth the read. Here are some other abuses of Gee, as previously explained here and here.

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His book does seem ripe for creationist abuse. In fact, while reading it, I played a game where I take a sentence and try to give it a creationist spin. For the first fifty or so pages, I found about 20 lines that can be quote mined. What's surprising is that so few are being used by creationists. It's a treasure trove for the morally deprived.
Colin Patterson, who also was prone to provide ore for the quote miners because he liked to shake people up, lamented in the second edition of his excellent short textbook (released shortly after his death and called, simply, "Evolution") that the quote miners made it impossible to speak frankly and openly without considering what one's words might be twisted into. It is one of the great disservices that creationists do to science.
I knew Colin Patterson personally, and witnessed at first hand how evolutionary biologists are sometimes forced to temper their thinking in case of later creationist abuse. As John Pieret says, if not in so many words, this is the most insidious weapon that creationists have. When I sat down to write 'Deep Time' I made the conscious decision that I would tell the story like it is, without looking over my shoulder for prior approval from creationists. As far as I was concerned, I felt, creationism is manifest rubbish and the creationists can go hang - no amount of reasoned argument will ever convince them. In any case, the truth will out. What amazed me is that after the book was published, I was chided by some evolutionary biologists for speaking out about what I saw were errors in old-fashioned evolutionary thinking, not because I was wrong, but simply because I would give ammunition to creationists. In other words, I was ask to peddle old-fashioned, outmoded ideas about evolution simply for fear that my words would be twisted by politically motivated religious loonies. Now, if that isn't simple cowardice, playing the creationist tune, I don't know what is. -- Henry Gee
I'll have to work on so-manying my words better because I do think it is one of the most insidious (and effective) tools of deception creationists have. If you scan the news and the letters to the editor sections in American papers as much as I do, you will be struck at how many people are convinced there is a real, honest-to-gosh debate about evolution within science that evolution is losing. Of course, there is an element of self-delusion that is at work here but it is also an effect of quote mining making it seem as if there is real doubt within scientists' ranks.

I agree that there should be no blame passed out for "giving ammunition to creationists," not only because scientists shouldn't have to blunt their message to avoid its misuse but because it won't make any difference anyway.

From long sad experience with these people working the Quote Mine Project, I know there is no such thing as an unquoteminable paper or book. The ingenuity of the quote miner is nearly unlimited, even if it could be put to much better use, such as in aid of learning some science.

On the other hand, there is a real, palpable fear that science and science education is in serious danger of extinction in the U.S. and people are understandably afraid of making the situation worse. It may not be so much cowardice as it is an excess of caution that gets people kvetching about being "too open" when it comes to the real disputes in science.

Me, I'll just keep trying to kneecap the quote miners (metaphorically speaking, of course).
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