Fallacy of quoting out of context
The practice of quoting out of context, sometimes referred to as "contextomy", is an informal 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. Contextomies are stereotypically intentional, but may also occur accidentally if someone misinterprets the meaning and omits something essential to clarifying it, thinking it non-essential.
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.
In either case, while quoting a person out of context can be done intentionally to advance an agenda or win an argument, it is also possible to remove essential context without the aim to mislead, through not perceiving a change in meaning or implication that may result from quoting what is perceived as the essential crux of a statement.
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. 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.
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.
Mike Ryan had written that the show was "the most confusing, asinine, ridiculous —yet somehow addictively awesome — television show of all time." Naturally, the blurb hunters at ABC chose to abridge the quote ever so slightly. What appeared on TV screens was: "The most addictively awesome television show of all time" — Vanity Fair
Carl Bialik compiled a list in 2008 of 10 "egregious misquotes" of the previous year for Gelf Magazine. The list includes
- Film: Live Free or Die Hard. Blurb: Jack Mathews, New York Daily News: "Hysterically...entertaining." Actual written line: "The action in this fast-paced, hysterically overproduced and surprisingly entertaining film is as realistic as a Road Runner cartoon."
- Film: Norbit. Blurb: Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune: "Eddie Murphy's comic skills are immense." Actual written line: "Murphy's comic skills are immense, and Dreamgirls shows he's a fine straight dramatic actor too. So why does he want to make these huge, belching spectaculars, movies as swollen, monstrous and full of hot air as Rasputia herself — here misdirected by Brian Robbins of Good Burger, Varsity Blues and that lousy Shaggy Dog remake?"
- Film: Paris, je t'aime. Blurb: Nick Schager, Slant Magazine: "Romantic, mysterious, hilarious. Thrums with sexy, stylish energy." Actual written line: "Most fine are those that strive to capture the swooningly romantic, mysterious atmosphere that's endeared so many to France's capital... the Coen Brothers' hilarious Metro-as-hell Tuileries ... cinematographer par excellence Christopher Doyle's Porte de Choisy, which thrums with the type of sexy, stylish, silly energy that Parisian dreams are made of."
Slate wrote in an "Explainer" column: "How much latitude do movie studios have in writing blurbs? A fair amount. There's no official check on running a misleading movie blurb, aside from the usual laws against false advertising. Studios do have to submit advertising materials like newspaper ads and trailers to the Motion Picture Association of America for approval. But the MPAA reviews the ads for their tone and content, not for the accuracy of their citations. ... As a courtesy, studios will often run the new, condensed quote by the critic before sending it to print."
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.
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. The term is used by members of the scientific community to describe a method employed by creationists to support their arguments, 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":
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.
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 0-534-01153-5
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".
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 as examples, in addition to a number of online creationist lists of quote-mines. Both AiG and ICR use the following quote from 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.
Context shows that Gould rejected the gradualists' explanation for the lack of support for gradual change in favor of his own interpretation. He continues:
... Gradualists usually extract themselves from this dilemma by invoking the extreme imperfection of the fossil record. 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.
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.
"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. 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. However, Darwin went on to explain that the apparent absurdity of the evolution of an eye is no bar to its occurrence, and elaborates on its evolution.
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.
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.
- 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'".
- 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."
- Travel: The Guardian ran an article in May 2013 with the subheading "Sri Lanka has the hotels, the food, the climate and the charm to offer the perfect holiday, says Ruaridh Nicoll. It's just a pity about the increasingly despotic government". A highly edited version of this piece was immediately posted on the official Sri Lankan news portal under the heading "Sri Lanka has everything to offer perfect holiday" [sic].
- 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."
- 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."
- Cherry picking (fallacy)
- Darwin quotation issue in Expelled
- Resignation of Shirley Sherrod
- Taliban Dan ad
- Engel, Morris S., With Good Reason: An Introduction to Informal Fallacies (1994), pp. 106-107 ISBN 0-312-15758-4
- Quoting Out of Context, Fallacy Files
- Mayer, M. (1966). They thought they were free: The Germans, 1933–45. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.
- McGlone, M.S. (2005a). Quoted out of context: Contextomy and its consequences. Journal of Communication, 55, 330–346.
- McGlone, M.S. (2005b). Contextomy: The art of quoting out of context. Media, Culture, & Society, 27, 511–522.
- Reiner, L. (1996). "Why Movie Blurbs Avoid Newspapers." Editor & Publisher: The Fourth Estate, 129, 123, citing:
- Sancton, Julian (March 19, 2010). "Good Blurbs from Bad Reviews: Repo Men, The Bounty Hunter, Diary of a Wimpy Kid". Vanity Fair. Retrieved February 28, 2013.
- Bialik, Carl (January 6, 2008). "The Best Worst Blurbs of 2007: The 10 most egregious misquotes, blurb whores, and other movie-ad sins of 2007". Gelf Magazine. Retrieved February 28, 2013.
- Beam, Chris (Nov 25, 2009). "'(Best) Film Ever!!!' How Do Movie Blurbs Work?". Slate. Retrieved February 28, 2013.
- Age banding, Philip Pullman, The Guardian, 7 June 2008
- Excellent! Theatres forced to withdraw misleading reviews, Amol Rajan, The Independent, 29 May 2008
- The Quote Mine Project, John Pieret (ed), TalkOrigins Archive
- The Revised Quote Book, E.T. Babinski (ed), TalkOrigins Archive
- 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
- Forrest, Barbara; Paul R. Gross (2004). Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 7. ISBN 0-19-515742-7. 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.""
- "The Counter-creationism Handbook", Mark Isaak, ISBN 0-520-24926-7 p 14
- Quote-Mining Comes to Ohio, Glenn Branch
- "Does Convincing Evidence For Evolution Exist?".
- The Quote Mine Project, John Pieret (ed), TalkOrigins Archive
- Stephen Jay Gould, The Panda's Thumb, 1980, p. 189 — quoted in:
- Backer of Theory Never Contradicted Self, Truth Shows, Casey Luskin, Evolution News & View, Discovery Institute
- New England Journal of Medicine Traipses Into the Kitzmiller Decision (Part III), Casey Luskin, Evolution News & View, Discovery Institute
- Large Gaps in Creation, Genesis Park
- The Creation Hypothesis, James Porter Moreland, p 278
- False Assumption 4—Part One, John Ankerberg and John Weldon, p2
- Creating the Missing Link: A Tale About a Whale, Duane Gish, Institute for Creation Research
- Creationists Fight Back! A Review of U.S. News & World Report, Brad Harrub and Bert Thompson, Apologetics Press
- Stephen Jay Gould, The Panda's Thumb, 1980, p. 189, cited as Quote 41, The Quote Mine Project, TalkOrigins Archive
- Evolution as Fact and Theory Science and Creationism, Stephen Jay Gould, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), p. 124.
- LTBS Quarterly, April 2000, Answers in Genesis: Natural selection[full citation needed], No Answers in Genesis: The incomprehensible creationist - the Darwin "eye" quote revisited, Talk.origins: Index to Creationist Claims, Claim CA113.1
- Zimmer, Carl (December 1, 2005). "Quote Mining, Near and Far. The Loom: A blog about life, past and future". Retrieved 2009-02-01.
- A helluva show. Really. It was hell, Jack Malvern, The Times, July 24, 2006
- The 2000 Campaign: The Ad Campaein; A Matter of Promises, John M. Broder, The New York Times, February 12, 2000
- Sri Lanka: island in the storm, Ruaridh Nicoll, The Guardian, May 5th, 2013
- Sri Lanka has everything to offer perfect holiday - The Guardian, Priu, Sri Lanka, May 5th, 2013
- Lincoln the Devil, James M. MacPherson, The New York Times, August 27, 2000
- My Response to the British Homeopathic Association, Martin Robbins, The Lay Scientist, February 9, 2010
- Boller, Paul F., Jr. (1967). Quotemanship: The Use and Abuse of Quotations for Polemical and Other Purposes. Southern Methodist University Press. ISBN 978-1-161-40918-5.
- The dictionary definition of contextomy at Wiktionary
- Noises off: Bloggers fight against 'contextomy', The Guardian Theatre Blog, guardian.co.uk