How can ideas that have failed to find acceptance in the scientific arena continue to be promoted as scientifically valid? A common rhetorical strategy among anti-evolutionists is reminiscent of advertisements for bad movies — excerpt the bad reviews and use parts of them to your advantage. In this case the Bhakavadanta Institute excerpted my negative review in Creation/Evolution
(Tarzia 1994) to promote the creationist archaeology book, Forbidden Archaeology: The hidden history of the human race
by Michael A Cremo and Richard L Thompson. It is a simple method — counter a theory of evolution through acrobatic selective citation. For a Christian creationist example of the method, see Henry Morris's book That Their Words May Be Used Against Them
(1998). However, the example I will explore here shows the use of selective citations from negative reviews to promote the book through advertisement on a web site.
The Institute had much material to work with because several scholars published negative reviews of the book. Some of these reviewers made positive remarks about certain aspects of Forbidden Archaeology
even if their final judgment was that the book was a work of pseudoscience or had severe shortcomings. Showing resolution before critical adversity, the publishers established a World Wide Web site (http://www.webcom.com/ara/col/books/science/fa.html
) composed of positive statements from many negative reviews. Of course, these selective citations have been removed from the context of the overall negative assessments. The publishers introduce these citations with this upbeat statement:
Forbidden Archeology is an extremely controversial book that has attracted a great deal of attention in the academic world. As might be expected, its anti-Darwinian thesis has provoked many negative reviews, some of which misrepresent the substance of the book. But even those who disagree with the book's conclusion have sometimes recognized it as a genuine scholarly contribution and correctly represented the substance of the book to their readers, as shown by the following excerpts.
last accessed on July 19, 1999).
A Trio of Reviews
I will show a few detailed examples from 3 sources I have at hand (Marks 1993; Feder 1994; Tarzia 1994). First I will extract a long section of each review to suggest the author's overall assessment, then show the Forbidden Archaeology
web site's use of this material in italics.
From Karl Feder's Review:
While decidedly anti-evolutionary in perspective, this work is not the ordinary variety of anti-evolutionism in form, content, or style. In distinction to the usual brand of such writing, the authors use original sources and the book is well written. Further, the overall tone of the work is far superior to that exhibited in ordinary creationist literature. Nonetheless, I suspect that creationism is at the root of the authors' argument, albeit of a sort not commonly seen before. It is impossible in the context of this short review to deal in an in-depth way with any of the myriad cases cited by the authors buttress their claims he authors to buttress their claims. Instead, their general approach can be summarized.
The authors base virtually their entire book on a literature search and most (though not all) of that literature dates to the early twentieth century. In so doing, the authors have resurrected nineteenth-century claims of "Tertiary Man" (see Grayson 1983), apparently superimposing on this a belief in the instantaneous appearance of anatomically modern Homo sapiens at some point in the very distant past, asserting that the evidence for this is at least as good, and usually better, than that cited for a much later and evolutionary origin for our species. The authors maintain that the analytical techniques applied by nineteenth century scientists to incised bones and "eoliths" that led some to conclude that these very ancient items were the result of human activity, are nearly the same techniques as those applied today to accepted evidence. Therefore, the authors assert, the conclusions reached by nineteenth and early twentieth -century researchers that these very ancient objects were cultural in origin are of equal validity to the identification of more recent (late Pliocene) cultural objects by modern scientists. Thus, when a nineteenth-century researcher using a standard microscope of the time claims that striations found on bones dating back tens of millions of years are butchering marks, this is the equivalent, in the authors' view, of a modern researcher identifying cut marks using a scanning electron microscope. I doubt that many working in the field would agree. ... When you attempt to deconstruct a well-accepted paradigm, it is reasonable to expect that a new paradigm be suggested in its place. The authors of Forbidden Archaeology do not do this and I would like to suggest a reason for their neglect here. Wishing to appear entirely scientific, the authors hoped to avoid a detailed discussion of their own beliefs (if not through evolution, how? Is not within the last four million years, when?) since, I would contend, these are based on a creationist view, but not the kind we are all familiar with.
From Jonathan Marks's Review:
The explicit aims of the authors is to reconcile paleoanthropology to the Vedic ideas that "the human race is of great antiquity" and that "various human and apelike beings have coexisted for a long time" (p xxxvi). That does not sound particularly challenging; but unsatisfied with the apparently easy harmony between normal science and their nebulous theology, the authors decided to redo anthropology. The argument is simple: think of all the generalizations we can make about human evolution. Now think of all the exceptions, paradoxes, mistakes, and hoaxes. Now switch them. That is this book. As the Fire-sign Theatre once proclaimed: "Everything you know is wrong!" (But then, they were trying to be humorous, too). For unclear reasons, given the looseness of their religious thesis, this book is anti-evolutionary. The authors are trying to argue that humans have always been on earth, even unto the pre-Cambrian, when there was not much for them to eat or breathe.... The best that can be said is that more reading went into this Hindu-oid creationist drivel than seems to go into the Christian-oid creationist drivel. At any rate, this is a must for anyone interested in keeping up with goofy popular anthropology; at well over 900 pages, it is a veritable cornucopia of dreck.
From Wade Tarzia's Review:
Forbidden Archeology, a new Bhaktivedanta Institute book, argues that anatomically modern humans have existed for millions of years, which disproves the theory of human evolution; the authors make no specific claims for other kinds of biotic evolution. The book also claims that archaeologists have become a "knowledge filter" (p xxv ff) since the 19th century, laboring under a predisposition to ignore evidence for anatomically modern humans having existed for millions of years. Sometimes the book develops a dishonesty theory-evidence is said to be "carefully edited" (p 150) by scientists so that younger investigators do not see evidence that invalidates the theory of human evolution.
The authors have worked hard in collecting and quoting an enormous amount of material, much of it from the 19th- and early 20th-century, certainly interesting for its historical perspective. Their evidence is as diverse as it is detailed, including, for example, eoliths (crudely broken stones some have considered early tools), "wildmen" (Big Foot, etc), and even a fossilized shoe sole from the Triassic period. Despite all this hard work, I think the book falls short of a scientific work primarily (but not entirely) because (1) its arguments abandon the testing of simpler hypothesis before the more complex and sensationalistic ones, and (2) the use of so many outdated sources is inadequate for a book that seeks to overturn the well-established paradigm of human evolution — scholars must not work in isolation, especially today, when multi-disciplinary approaches are needed to remain on the cutting edge of knowledge. However, for researchers studying the growth, folklore, and rhetoric of pseudo-science, the book is useful as 'field' data.
Note that the italicized quotations are carefully selected summaries of the book or, as in the case of my review, selections of kind opinion (despite an overall negative judgment). In any event, the quotes so selected may appear to suggest that the reviewers are re-stating the book's premises ... and agree! Note that the introduction to this web-page states that the reviewers correctly summarize the substance of the book ... and again fosters an aura of overall agreement between the authors and book reviewers.
The entire effort seems legal to me; the website properly references the reviews. I assume the citations are generally accurate because the 3 I have shown here were cited correctly (although incompletely). The site does not claim
that these reviewers agreed with the book.
The Integrity of the Review Process
If the quotations are legal, is there a problem? Are the quotations ethical or misleading? That is difficult to answer; on its surface the site is advertising a book rather than discussing science and this selective citation is not unusual from an advertiser's point of view. But consider also that the site reproduces so much discussion from and about the book (about 9000 words) that the boundary between advertisement and scientific discussion is blurred. The Forbidden Archaeology
web site seems firmly in the recent media tradition of technical advertising, so what frame of reference shall we chose to decide whether this use of reviewers' comments is acceptable?
Because Forbidden Archaeology
professes to be rigorous and competitive in scholarly circles, we might expect its promotion to be similarly circumspect — keeping in mind that even the publishers of genuinely highly-regarded books are apt to select strong quotations from reviews. Still, is this the same thing as extracting summaries of positive statements from overall negative reviews?
While conceding to the cleverness of the publishers, I would point out the "interesting" rhetorical position in which the publishers have placed us. Of course, the letter of the law has been followed in citation rules; readers can
refer to the complete text of the reviews. However, the unusual arrangement of the material on the web site permits the publisher to "cheer with the enemy" in promoting the book. It seems that, when these reviewers tried to describe fairly some interesting feature of the book amidst its overwhelming methodological flaws, their professional approach to a scientifically worthless book was exploited for promotional purposes. Exploited? A strong word, but please read on. The formal arrangement of the citations on the web site seems designed to disorient the reader.
The visitor to the web site looks over bright commentary, self-praise, and lengthy extracts in this web-site, and becomes interested in the promise of exciting new findings dealing with the broadly fascinating topic of human evolution. Then the reader clicks on the link to the reviewers' comments and reads 76 words of a short blurb to the effect, "But even those who disagree with the book's conclusion have sometimes recognized it as a genuine scholarly contribution and correctly represented the substance of the book to their readers, as shown by the following excerpts." There follow 14 selectively good quotes (about 1475 words) devoid of the context of the reviewers' overall negative assessments. The reader is overloaded with the positive, and the brief notice admitting that these quotes are from nonadmirers is now some hundreds of words and perhaps a couple of minutes behind. Technically, the web page seems to remain within the bounds of legal citation; at the same time, the reader loses track of the context of the reviewers' comments — an outcome scholars usually try to avoid.
If the book is as successful as claimed, one might wonder why its promoters would need to risk the accusation of unfair citation — surely not a charge that scholars would want to risk. If the publisher wants the book to be taken seriously or skeptics won over, one wonders how this approach could possibly help.
Building Confidence in the Scholarly Process
My major disappointment rests in the fact that professional courtesy has been exploited. Scientists attempt to be fair, sometimes going so far as to admit to finding something good in an otherwise disappointing piece of work. This is not always or even often a saintly act; a scientific tradition of self-correction sometimes coerces honesty — we fear being proclaimed as unfair, unbalanced, biased. And sometimes — perish the thought — we delight
in being fair. As a sometimes voluntary, sometimes coercive self-correcting practice, science tries to avoid ignoring or camouflaging different sides of a debate. When it fails to debate the issues openly and accurately, it just isn't science.
The kind of selective quoting of scholarly reviews shown here may be legal, but it treads on the very outer fringes of scholarship and into the territory of cynical, unbalanced presentation. It seems to violate the scholarly tradition. It isn't consistent with the self-correcting nature of the review process nor does it build confidence in the integrity of authors, reviewers, and publishers. It may convince reviewers to focus on the negative just to be sure they can't be cynically misquoted next time, and that would be a disservice to all parties with an interest in honest, scholarly discourse.
And so this case leads inductively to a general observation. We're always fighting the human
in us, aren't we? We rise out of ourselves in ideals in the form of gods and observational-methodological perfection, and here we are, creationists and scientists, united in our urges even when divided about the details. Same urges, different methods, each with its own uses that may vaporize when mixed. Just a thought, but you can quote me.
Thanks to Dr John R Cole for reading a draft and making suggestions.