Fallacy of quoting out of context

Fallacy of quoting out of context

The practice of quoting out of context, sometimes referred to as "contextomy" or "quote mining", is a logical fallacy and a type of false attribution in which a passage is removed from its surrounding matter in such a way as to distort its intended meaning.[1]

Arguments based on this fallacy typically take two forms. As a straw man argument, which is frequently found in politics, it involves quoting an opponent out of context in order to misrepresent their position (typically to make it seem more simplistic or extreme) in order to make it easier to refute. As an appeal to authority, it involves quoting an authority on the subject out of context, in order to misrepresent that authority as supporting some position.[2]



Contextomy refers to the selective excerpting of words from their original linguistic context in a way that distorts the source’s intended meaning, a practice commonly referred to as "quoting out of context". The problem here is not the removal of a quote from its original context (as all quotes are) per se, but to the quoter's decision to exclude from the excerpt certain nearby phrases or sentences (which become "context" by virtue of the exclusion) that serve to clarify the intentions behind the selected words. Comparing this practice to surgical excision, journalist Milton Mayer coined the term "contextomy" to describe its use by Julius Streicher, editor of the infamous Nazi broadsheet Der Stürmer in Weimar-era Germany. To arouse anti-semitic sentiments among the weekly’s working class Christian readership, Streicher regularly published truncated quotations from Talmudic texts that, in their shortened form, appear to advocate greed, slavery, and ritualistic murder.[3] Although rarely employed to this malicious extreme, contextomy is a common method of misrepresentation in contemporary mass media, and studies have demonstrated that the effects of this misrepresentation can linger even after the audience is exposed to the original, in context, quote.[4][5][6]

Contextomy in advertising

One of the most familiar examples of contextomy is the ubiquitous “review blurb” in advertising. The lure of media exposure associated with being “blurbed” by a major studio may encourage some critics to write positive reviews of mediocre movies. However, even when a review is negative overall, studios have few reservations about excerpting it in a way that misrepresents the critic’s opinion. For example, the ad copy for New Line Cinema’s 1995 thriller Se7en attributed to Owen Gleiberman, a critic for Entertainment Weekly, used the comment “a small masterpiece.” Gleiberman actually gave Se7en a B− overall and only praised the opening credits so grandiosely: “The credit sequence, with its jumpy frames and near-subliminal flashes of psychoparaphernalia, is a small masterpiece of dementia.” Similarly, United Artists contextomized critic Kenneth Turan’s review of their flop Hoodlum, including just one word from it — “irresistible” — in the film’s ad copy: “Even Laurence Fishburne’s incendiary performance can’t ignite Hoodlum, a would-be gangster epic that generates less heat than a nickel cigar. Fishburne’s ‘Bumpy’ is fierce, magnetic, irresistible even… But even this actor can only do so much.” As a result of these abuses, some critics now deliberately avoid colorful language in their reviews.[7]

The European Union's Unfair Commercial Practices Directive prohibits contextomy, and targets companies who "falsely claim accreditation" for their products in ways that are "not being true to the terms of the [original] endorsement". It will be enforced in the United Kingdom by the Office of Fair Trading, and carries a maximum penalty there of a £5,000 fine or two years imprisonment.[8][9]

Quote mining and the creation-evolution controversy

Scientists and their supporters used the term quote mining as early as the mid-1990s in newsgroup posts to describe quoting practices of certain creationists.[10][11][12] It is used by members of the scientific community to describe a method employed by creationists to support their arguments,[13][14][15] though it can be and often is used outside of the creation-evolution controversy. Complaints about the practice predate known use of the term: Theodosius Dobzhansky wrote in his famous 1973 essay "Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution" that

Their [Creationists'] favorite sport is stringing together quotations, carefully and sometimes expertly taken out of context, to show that nothing is really established or agreed upon among evolutionists. Some of my colleagues and myself have been amused and amazed to read ourselves quoted in a way showing that we are really antievolutionists under the skin.

The Institute for Creation Research (ICR) described the use of "[a]n evolutionist's quote mistakenly used out of context" to "negate the entirety of [an] article and creationist claims regarding the lack of transitional forms" as "a smoke screen".[16]

Both Answers in Genesis (AiG) and Henry M. Morris (founder of ICR) have been accused of producing books of mined quotes. TalkOrigins Archive (TOA) states that "entire books of these quotes have been published" and lists prominent creationist Henry M. Morris' That Their Words May Be Used Against Them and The Revised Quote Book (published by Creation Science Foundation, now AiG, and available from the AiG website)[17] as examples, in addition to a number of online creationist lists of quote-mines.[18] Both AiG and ICR quote mine Stephen Jay Gould on intermediate forms.[19]

This has been compared to the Christian theological method of prooftexting:

Pseudoscientists often reveal themselves by their handling of the scientific literature. Their idea of doing scientific research is simply to read scientific periodicals and monographs. They focus on words, not on the underlying facts and reasoning. They take science to be all statements by scientists. Science degenerates into a secular substitute for sacred literature. Any statement by any scientist can be cited against any other statement. Every statement counts and every statement is open to interpretation.
—Radner and Radner, Science and Unreason, ISBN 0534011535

Stephen Jay Gould on intermediate forms

The fossil record with its abrupt transitions offers no support for gradual change. All paleontologists know that the fossil record contains precious little in the way of intermediate forms; transitions between major groups are characteristically abrupt. Gradualists usually extract themselves from this dilemma by invoking the extreme imperfection of the fossil record.

Stephen Jay Gould[19][20]

The full context shows that Gould stated the argument of extreme imperfection of the fossil record in order to reject it in favor of his own interpretation:

Although I reject this argument (for reasons discussed in ["The Episodic Nature of Evolutionary Change"]), let us grant the traditional escape and ask a different question.[20]

Knowing that creationists are quoting him as if he were saying there were no transitional forms, Gould responded:

Since we proposed punctuated equilibria to explain trends, it is infuriating to be quoted again and again by creationists -- whether through design or stupidity, I do not know -- as admitting that the fossil record includes no transitional forms. The punctuations occur at the level of species; directional trends (on the staircase model) are rife at the higher level of transitions within major groups.[21]

"Absurd in the highest degree"

Since the mid-1990s, scientists and their supporters have used the term quote mining to describe versions of this practice as used by certain creationists in the creation-evolution controversy.[10] An example found in debates over evolution is an out-of-context quotation of Charles Darwin in his Origin of Species:

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 degree.

This sentence, sometimes truncated to the phrase "absurd in the highest degree", is often presented as part of an assertion that Darwin himself believed that natural selection could not fully account for the complexity of life.[22] However, Darwin went on to explain that the apparent absurdity of the evolution of an eye is no bar to its occurrence.

The quote in context 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 degree. Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real.
Charles DarwinOrigin of Species

Other out of context quotations

Besides the creation-evolution controversy, the fallacy of quoting out of context is also used in other areas. In some instances, commentators have used the term quote mining, comparing the practice of others with creationist quote mining.[23]

  • Entertainment: with The Times reporting its frequent abuse by promoters with, for example, "I couldn’t help feeling that, for all the energy, razzmatazz and technical wizardry, the audience had been shortchanged" being pared down to "having 'energy, razzmatazz and technical wizardry'".[24]
  • Politics: in the 2000 United States Republican primary campaign, George W. Bush's campaign screened advertising including a "warning" from John McCain's "conservative hometown paper" that "It's time the rest of the nation learns about the McCain we know." The paper (The Arizona Republic), however, went on to say, "There is much there to admire. After all, we have supported McCain in his past runs for office."[25]
  • Pseudohistory: A book review in The New York Times recounts Lerone Bennett Jr.'s "distortion by omission" in citing a letter from Abraham Lincoln as evidence that he "did not openly oppose the anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party" because, as Lincoln explained, "they are mostly my old political and personal friends", while omitting to mention that the remainder of the letter describes Lincoln's break with these former Whig Party associates of his, and his anticipation of "painful necessity of my taking an open stand against them."[26]
  • Alternative Medicine: Analysis of the evidence submitted by the British Homeopathic Association to the House Of Commons Evidence Check On Homeopathy contains many examples of quote mining, where the conclusions of scientific papers were selectively quoted to make them appear to support the efficacy of homeopathic treatment. For example, one paper's conclusion was reported as "There is some evidence that homeopathic treatments are more effective than placebo" without the immediately following caveat "however, the strength of this evidence is low because of the low methodological quality of the trials. Studies of high methodological quality were more likely to be negative than the lower quality studies." [27]

See also


  1. ^ Engel, Morris S., With Good Reason: An Introduction to Informal Fallacies (1994), pp. 106-107 ISBN 0-312-15758-4
  2. ^ Quoting Out of Context, Fallacy Files
  3. ^ Mayer, M. (1966). They thought they were free: The Germans, 1933–45. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.
  4. ^ Contextomy: The art of quoting out of context, McGlone, Matthew S. (2005), Media, Culture, & Society, 27, 511-522
  5. ^ McGlone, M.S. (2005a). Quoted out of context: Contextomy and its consequences. Journal of Communication, 55, 330–346.
  6. ^ McGlone, M.S. (2005b). Contextomy: The art of quoting out of context. Media, Culture, & Society, 27, 511–522.
  7. ^ Reiner, L. (1996). Why movie blurbs avoid newspapers. Editor & Publisher: The Fourth Estate, 129, 123, citing:
  8. ^ Age banding, Philip Pullman, The Guardian, 7 June 2008
  9. ^ Excellent! Theatres forced to withdraw misleading reviews, Amol Rajan, The Independent, 29 May 2008
  10. ^ a b The Quote Mine Project, John Pieret (ed), TalkOrigins Archive
  11. ^ The Revised Quote Book, E.T. Babinski (ed), TalkOrigins Archive
  12. ^ According to the Quote Mine Project at TalkOrigins Archive, the first record of the term in talk.origins was a posting by Lenny Flank on March 30, 1997, with a February 2, 1996 reference in another Usenet group, rec.arts.comics.misc
  13. ^ Forrest, Barbara; Paul R. Gross (2004). Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 7. ISBN 0195157427. http://www.creationismstrojanhorse.com/. Retrieved 2007-03-09. "In the face of the extraordinary and often highly practical twentieth-century progress of the life sciences under the unifying concepts of evolution, [creationist] "science" consists of quote-mining — minute searching of the biological literature — including outdated literature — for minor slips and inconsistencies and for polemically promising examples of internal arguments. These internal disagreements, fundamental to the working of all natural science, are then presented dramatically to lay audiences as evidence of the fraudulence and impending collapse of "Darwinism."" 
  14. ^ "The Counter-creationism Handbook", Mark Isaak, ISBN 0520249267 p 14
  15. ^ Quote-Mining Comes to Ohio, Glenn Branch
  16. ^ Does Convincing Evidence For Evolution Exist?
  17. ^ The Word Downloads, Answers in Genesis
  18. ^ The Quote Mine Project, John Pieret (ed), TalkOrigins Archive
  19. ^ a b Stephen Jay Gould, The Panda's Thumb, 1980, p. 189 — quoted in:
  20. ^ a b Stephen Jay Gould, The Panda's Thumb, 1980, p. 189, cited as Quote 41, The Quote Mine Project, TalkOrigins Archive
  21. ^ Evolution as Fact and Theory Science and Creationism, Stephen Jay Gould, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), p. 124.
  22. ^ LTBS Quarterly, April 2000, Answers in Genesis: Natural selection, No Answers in Genesis: The incomprehensible creationist - the Darwin "eye" quote revisited, Talk.origins: Index to Creationist Claims, Claim CA113.1
  23. ^ Zimmer, Carl (December 1, 2005). "Quote Mining, Near and Far. The Loom: A blog about life, past and future". http://www.corante.com/loom/archives/2005/12/01/quote_mining_near_and_far.php. Retrieved 2009-02-01. 
  24. ^ A helluva show. Really. It was hell, Jack Malvern, The Times, July 24, 2006
  25. ^ The 2000 Campaign: The Ad Campaein; A Matter of Promises, John M. Broder, The New York Times, February 12, 2000
  26. ^ Lincoln the Devil, James M. MacPherson, The New York Times, August 27, 2000
  27. ^ My Response to the British Homeopathic Association, Martin Robbins, The Lay Scientist, February 9, 2010
  28. ^ http://www.factcheck.org/2010/09/rep-grayson-lowers-the-bar/
  29. ^ http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0910/42818.html

Further reading

External links

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