Recently in Quote Mines Category

Bill-Nye-vs.-Ken-Ham-Debate_f_improf_645x254.pngEveryone seems to be talking about the Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham debate which is occurring in a few hours. I’m not going to watch it, at least not immediately. I’m not 100% against debating creationists, but I do think science-defenders should try to not give the contest away before it even starts.

For a long time I’ve been developing a list in my head of what scientists and science educators should think about even before they even agree to appear in a debate. Bill Nye made all of these mistakes at once, and therefore, even if he and his bow-tie have the best day of their lives, he’s lost on a lot of fronts already. All Ken Ham has to do to win is not break down in tears and admit he’s based his life on a horrible mistake.

Therefore, here are my…


I recently read Casey Luskin’s article (“Zeal for Darwin’s House Consumes Them: How Supporters of Evolution Encourage Violations of the Establishment Clause”) in the Liberty University Law Review. Most of it is tendentious as usual, and Tim Sandefur makes an excellent reply (PT: Luskin, laws, and lies).

However, I think it may be important for us to read Luskin’s article, as it looks like it is laying out a new lawsuit strategy for the ID movement, which would be to provoke parents into suing school districts that use a textbook that has some smidgen of (alleged) materialism, (alleged) endorsement of theistic evolution or accommodationism, or critique of ID/creationism somewhere within its hundreds or thousands of pages.

The song of the title of this post is a catchy and highly amusing piece that suggests that if we’re just mammals we should have sex. It’s sort of a low brow version of Andrew Marvell’s To his coy mistress. Instead of Time’s wing�d chariot, we should do what mammals do on the Discovery Channel. Except, humans don’t. They do something special. Think about it. We aren’t dogs, monkeys, dolphins or bowerbirds, we’re humans. We are a species (which, as I keep reminding folk, is the noun of “special”).

So when Phillip Johnson, the father of the modern intelligent design movement, attacks Christopher Hitchens for calling “great men” “mammals”, and points out:

While Hitchens never refers to the authorities on his side as “mammals,” reserving that category for those whom he wishes to belittle, it will not escape the reader that if “great men” are only mammals, then so are scientists, including the esteemed Charles Darwin and the not-quite-so-esteemed Richard Dawkins, and so, of course, is Hitchens himself. Which raises the question: Why should we take seriously any speculation by a mere mammal, or even the consensus of mammal opinion, about the origin of its species, no matter how much evidence the mammals imagine themselves to have gathered?

… we might be inclined to agree. If we’re just mammals, then we shouldn’t pay attention to Hitchens or Dawkins or Darwin, right?

I call this Darwin’s Monkey Mind Puzzle. Darwin wrote near the end of his life:

But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind? [Letter to William Graham, 1881]

It is recently the argument presented by Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga against evolutionary theory - it’s self defeating. If evolution is true, then we have no warrant for thinking that evolution is true, ergo Augustine is right. Or something. I would like to discuss this a little, reprising some arguments Paul Griffiths and I have presented in a forthcoming paper. On my blog.

I’ve been dealing with creationists for a long time now, and I thought that I’d gotten over being surprised by dishonest behavior in their ranks. In fact, I thought I’d gotten over it even when I’m on the receiving end of the false witness, and when the person dishing it out is someone who really should know better. As it turns out, I might not have quite as far over it as I thought.

As regular readers know, Dr. Michael Egnor is one of the more impressively credentialed denizens of the Discovery Institute’s media complaints blog. He has decades of experience as a neurosurgeon. He’s on the faculty at Stony Brook University School of Medicine, where he serves as a professor of neurosurgery. And, based on the level of intellectual integrity that he just demonstrated, he’s not someone I would trust to train a dog, much less a doctor.

That’s a harsh statement, I know, but I just got through reading his response to my recent critique of some of his Discovery Institute ramblings. Or, rather, his response to what he says was my recent critique. It was actually an interesting experience. He managed to take what I wrote so far out of context, and distort it so thoroughly, that I actually had problems recognizing some of the quotes as being my own work.

I may (or may not) deal with the nonexistent scientific merit of Dr. Egnor’s reply later on. I’m not even going to try and catalogue all of the cases where Egnor was less than honest in his characterization of my writing. Instead, I’m simply going to highlight the most egregious case of flat-out, nose-growing, pants-on-fire lying.

Read more at The Questionable Authority, where comments may be left:

Note: this turned into kind of a rough draft of an essay, and I think the part about the origin of life and complexity of the cell would be publishable in perhaps an education journal. So I welcome any comments on the argument, supporting or undermining points, etc. I don’t have my references folders handy at the moment but I have references in mind for all of the factual assertions, although more are always welcome. I’m very happy to acknowledge commentators if this does get published, or even have a coauthor if someone else is interested in working on this. Thanks!

I have not been able to blog much lately, due to minor distractions like grad school and actually having a social life for once (don’t everyone gasp at once an suck all of the air out of the room). But now it is summer and I am in a coffee shop, and I am feeling frisky. I just came across blogs by Jeff Shallit and PZ Myers responding to an essay in The Scientist entitled “What neo-creationists get right” by Gordy Slack, journalist and author of an excellent book on the Dover trial, The Battle Over the Meaning of Everything: Evolution, Intelligent Design, and a School Board in Dover, PA. (And Slack’s reply to PZ and PZ’s surreply.) Slack argued that part of the reason for the persistence of creationism is that evolutionists often react with “ridicule and self-righteous rage” on some issues where creationists might have a point, or are at least not so clearly wrong.

I consider both Slack and his critics friends and colleagues, and both sides make some valid points. But I think many of the arguments that both Slack and his critics make in this particular instance don’t work.

Someone once pointed out that when a dog pisses on a fire hydrant, it’s not committing an act of vandalism. It’s just being a dog. It’s possible to use that analogy to excuse a creationist who takes a quote wildly out of context, I suppose, but I don’t think it’s really appropriate. Creationists might indulge in quote mining with the same casual disregard for public decency as a male dog telling his neighbors that he’s still around, but, unlike dogs, the creationists are presumably capable of self-control. We’ve simply grown blase about their propensity for twisting other people’s words because they do it so often.

Still, I expected more from Michael Egnor. He’s not some diploma mill hack, who really might not know any better. The man is a professor of neurosurgery and pediatrics at SUNY Stony Brook, and is actually the vice chairman of neurosurgery. He’s been in academia for some time, and presumably has some understanding of the importance of intellectual integrity. When he picks and chooses which words to quote to make it appear that someone has said something very different from what they meant, he has very clearly chosen to tell a lie. And that’s just what he did when he quoted from one of my posts.

Here’s what he wrote:

Zoology graduate student and Darwinist Mike Dunford at Panda’s Thumb has replied to recent posts in which Dr. Jonathan Wells and I pointed out that Darwin’s theory is irrelevant to medical research on antibiotic resistance, and that antibiotic resistance itself is irrelevant to the debate about intelligent design and Darwinism. Remarkably, Mr. Dunford, referring to a recent advance in research on antibiotic resistance, concedes both points. He writes:

The scientists worked in a lab. They artificially replicated a set of conditions (an antibiotic-rich environment) that occur in nature. Finally, they placed the bacteria into this environment - something that happens spontaneously outside the lab…We’ll pretend that anything that happens in a lab must be artificial selection, and that it is totally and completely wrong to use the phrase “natural selection” when referring to these experiments.

Mr. Dunford is right. Selection that happens by design in a lab is artificial selection, not natural selection. This distinction is of fundamental importance in this debate. Why? Consider Mr. Dunford’s next observation:

Now, here’s what I actually wrote. The portions that Egnor skipped over are highlighted in boldface:

Read more at The Questionable Authority, where comments may be left.

When everything else fails…


The Discovery Institute, after having realized that Intelligent Design is doomed to remain scientifically infertile and vacuous and after their devastating loss at the Dover trial, seems to have retreated to their fundamental opposition to materialism. Hopelessly confused by Phil Johnson’s misunderstanding of methodological and philosophical naturalism, the DI seems to be intent to blame evil Darwinists for immoral behaviors such as eugenics.

Let me start of by pointing out that any such attempt is doomed from the beginning for the simple reason that the Discovery Institute and other ID Creationists have claimed that Darwinism cannot provide foundation for morality, or in other words, Darwinism cannot serve as a principle on which to build a decision of what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’. This means that Eugenics cannot have a foundation in amoral scientific concepts lest there exists an external principle on which to base the decision as to what is good and bad for society.

People should therefor not be surprised that eugenics has been a principle which preceded Darwinism. Equally unsurprised will be the well informed readers who are familiar with the eugenic history of Christian evangelicals in the United States.

But I digress. The Discovery Institute, after having come to the inevitable conclusion that Intelligent Design is likely to remain without scientific relevance has changed its approach. While I predict that their attempts will become an ever greater disaster than their attempts to introduce the concept of Intelligent Design into schools, there is an even greater concern. Namely by violating St Augustine’s fair warnings about Christians saying foolish things (about science), an observer may easily come to reject the whole teaching of Christianity as a similarly foolish enterprise.

When an anti-evolutionist attempts to publicly “explain” a scientific paper, it usually signals two things: you should read the paper for yourself, and you should not be surprised to find that the creationist “explanation” misrepresents what the paper really says. A new blog post by Paul Nelson is no exception. Nelson, descending from the (relative) intellectual heights of the Discovery Institute to join the crowd at Dembski’s Whine Cellar, tells his readers that scientists did not grasp the true point of a 1975 paper because they did not read it all the way through.

The paper in question is a relatively famous one - it’s a paper in Science by Mary-Claire King and Allan Wilson that compared the available measures of genetic difference between humans and chimps with what was known about the morphological, behavioral, and cultural differences between the two species. King and Wilson, in this paper, calculated that there was a 1% genetic difference between humans and chimps, and that this difference is not enough to account for how different the two species really are. Nelson claims that scientists focused on the first finding because it was reported early in the paper, and missed the second part because it came later, after us lazy lab boys had given up on reading. (Nelson apparently believes that scientists share his work ethic.)

Read more (at The Questionable Authority):

Anyone who has been a “creationism watcher” for any length of time is familiar with the venerable creationist tactic of “quote mining.” Since creationists, essentially universally, can’t (or don’t want to) deal with actual scientific data pertaining to evolution, they attempt maintain a facade of respectibility by quoting statements from biological authorities. This can take many forms; for example, for the 1987 Supreme Court Edwards v. Aguillard case, the creationist lawyer Wendell Bird, apparently with the help of Paul Nelson, assembled a massive 500-page brief that consisted almost entirely of thousands of quotes from authorities on every topic bearing on “creation science”, from astrophysics to biology to philosophy to religion. This failed to convince the Supremes, but Bird turned his brief into a large two-volume book, The Origin of Species Revisited. Other elaborations on creationist quote-mining include various “Quote Books”, including The Quote Book (1984 booklet, inserted in Creation magazine I believe) and The Revised Quote Book (1990) from Answers in Genesis, the Handy Dandy Evolution Refuter (now online), and Henry Morris’ That Their Words may be used against Them (comes with CD!). Then we have endless collections of quotes on creationist websites, 50 of which were recently surveyed and ranked against the Talk.Origins Quote-Mine Project. Sometimes these quotes evolve and mutate over time (here is an example from Of Pandas and People), and sometimes they even spontaneously generate from thin air, as with this imaginary quote from Clarence Darrow.

You may be saying, “Surely this is a problem, but only famous authorities get quote mined. It would never happen to me!” Think again. On September 5, 2006, an article I coauthored in Nature Reviews Microbiology on flagellum evolution was published on the NRM website as an Advanced Online Publication. Before the ink was even dry – heck, before the ink was even wet, the October issue hasn’t come out yet – Casey Luskin at the Discovery Institute is quote mining it! The mining occured in Luskin’s insta-response to the revised edition Chris Mooney‘s book The Republican War on Science. Check this out:

Bad Philip Johnson Quote


There is a quote that I’ve seen all over the place, and I believe even used myself over the years, from the founder of the ID movement, Philip Johnson. Here is the quote as it is usually given:

“The objective is to convince people that Darwinism is inherently atheistic, thus shifting the debate from creationism vs. evolution to the existence of God vs. the non-existence of God. From there people are introduced to ‘the truth’ of the Bible and then ‘the question of sin’ and finally ‘introduced to Jesus.’”

The quote appears on over 400 webpages according to Google, and the source cited is the April 1999 edition of Church and State magazine. That magazine is published by Americans United for Separation of Church and State and this article was written by Rob Boston. The problem is that this is not a quote from Philip Johnson, it’s a quote about Philip Johnson, and as it has gotten passed around it has often been attributed to Johnson himself. For the full text of the article, go here. Given how often we have criticized the creationists about inaccurate and out of context quotations, it is imperative that we avoid using this quotation ourselves.

Update: This is a good example, I think, of how our side handles such situations compared to the other side. I emailed Michael Shermer, the editor of Skeptic, last night because he had recently used the quote in an article, and I informed him that it was a paraphrase, not a quote. His immediate response was to say thank you for the correction and to call his publisher because the quote also appears in his forthcoming book and he wanted to make sure it got taken out so it wouldn’t get disseminated any further. Kudos to Shermer.

Dembski quote mining Dawkins

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Dembski quotes Dawkins but somehow drops relevant parts of the sentence…

WAD Wrote:

What’s Your Favorite Dawkins Quote?

Quotes like “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist” and “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose” are right up there, but my all-time favorite is “Even if there were no actual evidence in favor of the Darwinian theory, we should still be justified in preferring it over all rival theories.” (All these quotes are from The Blind Watchmaker.)

It’s comforting that evolutionary theory is in the capable hands of rigorous empirical scientists like Dawkins.

As opposed to ‘rigorous empirical scientists’ like Dembski he probable means? Of course there are some interesting problems with his ‘logic’. First of all Dawkins is among thousands if not tens of thousands of capable scientists who move evolutionary theory forward. What does ID have to offer? Poof.… But let’s explore the ‘empirical evidence’ presented by Dembski with respect to Dawkin’s quote:

From the Quote Mines: Phil Skell

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In the August 29 issue of the Scientist, Phil Skell writes in his opinion piece “Why Do We Invoke Darwin? Evolutionary theory contributes little to experimental biology” the following:

Phil Skell Wrote:

Despite this and other daculties, the modem form of Darwin’s theory has been raised to its present high status because it’s said to be the comerstone ofmodem experimental biology. But is that correct? “While the great majority of biologists would probably agree with Theodosius Dobzhansky’s dictum that ‘nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,’ most can conduct their work quite happily without particular reference to evolutionary ideas,”

A.S. Wilkins, editor of the journal BioEssays, wrote in 2000. “Evolution would appear to be the indispensable unifying idea and, at the same time, a highly superfluous one.”

I decided to investigate the quote. Guess what?

Coyne as quoted by Behe in Darwin’s Black Box:

We conclude-unexpectedly-that there is little evidence for the neo-Darwinian view: its theoretical foundations and the experimental evidence supporting it are weak.

I decided to check the actual text and guess what? In the actual text the period is a comma and the text continues as follows:

and there is no doubt that mutations of large effects are sometimes important in adaptation.

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