Skepticism, Medicine and Science News

Questionable Quotes

Or, “why pulling random quotes out of your ass in a scientific argument has zero value”.

A lot of people do this. Use random quotes to make a case for their scientific standpoint. A recent post by  Casey Luskin on the Discovery Institute’s blog is a perfect example of this, and, in fact, his entire argument is based on 9 random quotes. So, here’s why you just can’t do this and claim you’re being scientific:

  1. First of all, Casey Luskin doesn’t reference his quotes properly. He kinda makes it looks like he does, but he’s really not. He usually just states the person quoted and fails to specify where the quote is taken from, and when he occasionally does, it’s always in the vague form of “in an Oxford University Press text” or “Invertebrate Zoology Textbook”. When using a quote to argue a scientific case, the least you can do is to make it possible for people to go back to the source and see the quote in it’s proper context. By not referencing properly he can just make stuff up, and nobody could ever really call him on it, because it is extremely difficult to prove a negative. At one point he doesn’t even bother to name the person quoted, he just writes “Two leading biologists”. Yeah, that’s really specific. 
  2. Second, and this is kind of related to my first point, Casey Luskin doesn’t say anything about when these quotes were made. When talking about a field of science, like evolution, that is constantly changing and adapting to new evidence, time is important. Quotes from 50 years back can be totally worthless today. One example of this is the fossil record of whale evolution. 30 years ago we had very few fossils showing the development of whales from land-living to sea-living mammals. But during the 80s and 90s we discovered a whole bunch of fossils, beautifully showing the migration of the blowhole from the nose to the back. So even though evolutionary biologist may have said something like “we have little knowledge about the development of whales” back in the 50s, that’s totally irrelevant today, as new evidence has been put forth. 
  3. Then there is the aspect of context. If you dig deep enough, you can find quotes from almost anyone that will support your case, no matter what your case may be. Here is one example: Say I believed in astrology, and wanted to make a case for it. I might then throw this quote out: “We should take astrology seriously” – Richard Dawkins in the article The Real Romance in the Stars. There, I found a quote by a brilliant scientist supporting my views (and I even referenced it properly). And it didn’t take me that long either. Oh, and btw, the full quote is “We should take astrology seriously. No, I don’t mean we should believe in it. I am talking about fighting it seriously instead of humouring it as a piece of harmless fun.” See what I mean when I talk about the importance of context? 

It is obvious that quotes, like statistics, can be used to back up anything you want them to. So when in a scientific argument, reference evidence, and not useless, random quotes. It just makes you look like an idiot.


October 5, 2008 - Posted by | Evolution, Creationism and ID, General Skepticism, Other | , , , ,

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