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Quote-Mining Comes to Ohio

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Quote-Mining Comes to Ohio
Author(s): 
Glenn Branch, NCSE Deputy Director
Volume: 
22
Issue: 
4
Year: 
2002
Date: 
July–August
Page(s): 
11–13
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Contributing to the ongoing furor over the proposed science standards in Ohio (see the articles in RNCSE 2002 Jan-Apr; 22 [1-2]; 4-5, 6-8, 8-9, 9-10, and 11, and "Ohio: An Evolving Controversy", p 4), the Discovery Institute submitted a "Bibliography of Supplementary Resources for Ohio Science Education" to the Ohio Board of Education on March 11, 2002. NCSE sent its analysis of the DI's Bibliography to the members of the Ohio Board of Education (OBE) on April 2 and posted it on NCSE's web site at http://www.ncseweb.org/resources/articles/3878_analysis_of_the_discovery_inst_4_5_2002.asp on April 5, 2002.

In a lengthy rebuttal of the NCSE's analysis, the Discovery Institute complained to the OBE on April 8, 2002, that NCSE's "charges are not only groundless, but are a malicious distortion of the public record", adding that "The educational value of the articles is self-evident" and alleging that "every case of misrepresentation claimed by the NCSE dissolves completely on close inspection" (emphasis in original).

The rebuttal was also interesting because, possibly for the first time ever, the Discovery Institute explained what exactly it means by "neo-Darwinism":
  • the sufficiency of small-scale random variation and natural selection to explain major changes in organismal form and function;
  • the equivalence, given enough time, of the processes of micro- and macroevolution;
  • the usefulness of "molecular clocks" to determine historical branching points between species;
  • the existence of a single Tree of Life, with its roots in a Last Universal Common Ancestor (LUCA);
  • the congruence or matching of evolutionary trees (that is, phylogenies) derived from morphological and molecular evidence;
  • the appearance, in embryology, of a conserved stage revealing the common ancestry of all vertebrates.
Needless to say, the Discovery Institute's idiosyncratic definition of "neo-Darwinism" is not shared by anybody outside the "intelligent design" movement. On April 9, NCSE responded and informed the OBE:
NCSE stands by its analysis: in NCSE's view, and in the view of the majority of the authors of the publications in the bibliography who responded to NCSE's questionnaire, the DI's bibliography document is inaccurate, tendentious, and misleading. Moreover, despite the DI's desperate claim that "[t]he educational value of the articles is self-evident", NCSE reiterates that the bibliography is of no conceivable pedagogical value to K-12 science education. NCSE urges the Ohio Board of Education to rely on the expertise of the writing committee, scientists, educators, and fellow Ohio citizens, who have invested their valuable knowledge and countless hours in producing a superlative set of science standards.
On April 15, a revised version of the DI rebuttal, containing neither the word "malicious" nor any claim about the pedagogical value of the publications in the Bibliography, appeared at http://www.discovery.org/articleFiles/PDFs/quesAndAnsNCSECritiqueOfBib.pdf.

Working in the quote mine

The tactic of abusing the primary scientific literature for the purpose of misleading the general public is not new to the anti-evolutionist movement. Writing in 1981, John R Cole explained:
Creationists have developed a skill unique to their trade: that of misquotation and quotation out of context from the works of leading evolutionists. This tactic not only frustrates scientists but it misleads school board members, legislators, and the public. Whether such actions by creationists of selectively seeking out quotations or references in order to prove a preconceived case are willful distortion or the product of wishful thinking is irrelevant. Such acts misuse science and scientists in bogus appeals to authority (Cole 1981: 34).
The practice is so frequent among creationists (and other practitioners of pseudoscience) that it receives a name: quote-mining. There are even books devoted to nothing but quote-mining (such as Morris 1998). Quote-mining adds nothing to the discussion of scientific issues and generally confuses the nonspecialist with misleading and inaccurate interpretations of the original research - which, of course, is its goal.

The NCSE analysis of the DI bibliography combined with the responses of the authors to the specific issues raised by the DI show that this is another case of quote-mining. The DI is placing its own peculiar spin on the research presented in the scientific literature while ignoring the analyses and conclusions that the studies' authors have presented.

The text of the NCSE analysis appears in the feature article on p 11. We have also reproduced the original DI bibliography and the text of the query we sent to the authors cited by the DI. On page 25, we include an in-depth look at one article and the DI's summary of it.

References

Cole JR. Misquoted scientists respond. Creation/Evolution 1981; 6: 34-44.

Morris HM. That Their Words May Be Used Against Them. Green Forest (AR): Master Books, 1998.