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While Ranting about "Quote Mining" in "Creationists Texts," Paper in Scientific Journal Misquotes and Misrepresents Pro-ID Article

Casey Luskin


A few weeks ago, my colleague Dr. Logan Gage sent me an email highlighting a new peer-reviewed paper in the highly regarded scientific journal PLOS ONE, “Experiential Thinking in Creationism — A Textual Analysis.” The authors, Petteri Nieminen, Esko Ryökäs, and Anne-Mari Mustonen, purport to analyze the rhetorical tactics of those they call “creationists.” They say they went through “creationist texts” and found that “quotations…were a major form of proof.” We’re told that “creationists” use a form of “experiential thinking” and:

Characteristic of experiential thinking, creationist evidence consists especially of quotes, appeals to authority and other types of testimonials that are chosen by studying scientific information through pseudodiagnostics and confirmation bias.

Now it’s quite normal in virtually all forms of academic scholarship — scientific writing, historical writing, legal writing, etc. — to quote from relevant authorities when trying to justify a point. And that makes sense. The enterprise of seeking to advance knowledge is a highly social and accretive activity: it builds on itself. Every scholar begins with a foundation of information already gathered, adding to and criticizing it as appropriate. So how odd that the authors make a big deal of the fact that “creationists” quote from scientific authorities. Indeed, the paper itself admits that this sort of thing can be a legitimate form of scientific scholarship. As they write:

…it is important to remember that quoted testimonials and personal observations or experience can belong to the scientific method.

So their real complaint can’t be simply that the “creationists” quoted from lots of relevant scientific authorities. Instead, they lament that “Testimonials of evolutionary scientists used as evidence against evolutionary theory” in “creationist” writings “include (out-of-context) quotes of alleged fatal flaws in evolutionary theory.” They claim that when they find “the use of quotes by evolutionary proponents … their out-of-context nature is exposed.” And again, they say regarding “creationist” writings: “Out-of-context citations (Table 3) allegedly affirming dishonesty or fatal flaws in evolutionary theory can be regarded as quote mining and tu quoque fallacies.” In case you didn’t get the message, they further say: “testimonials in the form of quotations also appeared similar to the out-of-context citations in the creationist sample material.”

OK, fine — perhaps they have some legitimate points. Many of the sources analyzed in the paper are genuine creationists, and I’m willing to believe that some creationists have misquoted people, or taken quotes out of context, which is what people typically mean by “quote mining.” But whenever someone starts ranting about “quote mining” and tries to portray an overly broad swath of writers and advocates as dishonest, it’s time to get a bit suspicious. As I’ve found in following the evolution debate, in most (though certainly not all) instances where an evolutionist accuses a Darwin-skeptic of “quote mining,” the accusation turns out to be maliciously contrived and evaporates upon closer inspection.

So why did Logan Gage send me this article? Well, an appendix that he and I co-authored in the book Intelligent Design 101 in 2008, “A Reply to Francis Collins’s Darwinian Arguments for Common Ancestry of Apes and Humans,” is one of the supposed “creationist texts” the paper analyzes. They only cite our essay once, to support the following claim:

The second type of testimonial is that of authoritative figures supporting creationism or disproving evolution: “There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of scientists today who once were evolutionists but have become creationists in recent years” [19, 21, 32-33].

We’re reference 33, in case you were wondering.

But wait. Nowhere in our appendix do we, the authors, argue for creationism. And nowhere do we say anything, whether in word or in spirit, like “There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of scientists today who once were evolutionists but have become creationists in recent years.” You can read our appendix online for free and see for yourself.

So isn’t this ironic: a seemingly legitimate peer-reviewed article in a respected scientific journal railing about “creationists” who engage in “quote mining” grossly misrepresented our paper!
And here’s more irony: If they had properly implemented the standard academic practice of quoting sources and authorities — the very method they try to paint as peculiar due to its prevalence in “creationist texts” — then perhaps they could have avoided their mistakes and made a much stronger argument!

Or did I perhaps misunderstand what the authors meant to say when they cited our essay? To make sure, I wrote to the lead author, Dr. Petteri Nieminen of the Faculty of Health Sciences, School of Medicine, University of Eastern Finland, to see how he justified citing my article as he did. I sent him the following email:

Dear Dr. Nieminen,

Greetings — my name is Casey Luskin and I am a co-author of one of the papers you cited in your recently published article, “Experiential Thinking in Creationism — A Textual Analysis.” In that article you wrote:

The second type of testimonial is that of authoritative figures supporting creationism or disproving evolution: “There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of scientists today who once were evolutionists but have become creationists in recent years” [19, 21, 32-33].

Your citation 33 refers to the appendix I co-wrote with Logan Paul Gage in the book Intelligent Design 101:

33. Luskin C, Gage LP. A reply to Francis Collins’s Darwinian arguments for common ancestry of apes and humans. In: House HW, editor. Intelligent design 101: Leading experts explain the key issues. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications; 2008. pp. 215-235.

You can find it online at: [link]

I’ve also attached the appendix to this email.

I am wondering if you can please answer the following questions:

  1. Where does our appendix say anything like “There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of scientists today who once were evolutionists but have become creationists in recent years”? Please cite specific passages or quotes from our appendix to back up your claim, and explain how they back up your claim.
  2. Where in our appendix do we, the authors, advocate creationism? Please cite specific passages or quotes from our appendix, and explain how they back up your claim.

Thanks and all the best.


Casey Luskin

It’s now been over two weeks, and Dr. Nieminen has not responded. I can only assume this means that the answer to my questions — which I already knew — is that our article does not advocate creationism, nor does it claim that hundreds or thousands of evolutionary scientists are suddenly becoming creationists.

Simply put, Nieminen and his co-authors misrepresented us. This goes beyond what they would call “quote mining.” They don’t just take something we said out of context, or otherwise fiddle with it to support an argument. That would be bad enough. They falsely attribute to us words and arguments we never wrote, and never would write because we don’t believe that what those words say is true.

Now, PLOS ONE publishes lots of good scientific papers. So what is going on here?

If you really want to understand, I suggest reading two other papers — published by people with backgrounds in the field of rhetoric, writing in journals dedicated to studying science communication. The papers are by Inna Kouper, “Science blogs and public engagement with science: practices, challenges, and opportunities,” Journal of Science Communication; and Dale L. Sullivan, “Keeping the Rhetoric Orthodox: Forum Control in Science,” Technical Communication Quarterly. They discuss how evolutionists seek to marginalize dissenters with scorn, ridicule, and incendiary rhetoric, rather than answering us head-on with arguments and evidence. The ultimate goal is to suppress dialogue and intimidate people so they’ll avoid the heretical Darwin-doubting viewpoint. (See here for a discussion of these two excellent papers.)
Though dressed up in academic garb, that’s pretty much what this article in PLOS ONE tries to do. They want to demonstrate their camp’s rightness while labeling all dissenters on Darwinian evolution as “creationists” — an apparently academically inferior and untouchable intellectual class, to be opposed, avoided, and shunned.

Thus, their article contains the sort of typical buzz-word accusations you commonly hear from evolutionists who are trying to avoid the scientific arguments by treating Darwin-skeptics as subjects to be studied (and demeaned) rather than as reasonable intellectuals who deserve to be answered. These accusations include: “magical beliefs,” “non-scientific,” “pseudodiagnosticity,” “myside bias,” “ignoring contradictory data,” “confirmation bias,” “fallacious argumentation,” “resistance to change,” “poisoning the well and guilt by association fallacies,” “appeals to emotional aspects,” “mental contamination,” etc. In an incredibly tone-deaf moment of apparent projection, they decry that “creationists” use “argumentative fallacies that include demonization and portrayal of evolutionary biologists as unreliable or unqualified.”

They did devote a small part of their paper and its analysis to discussing pro-evolution writings, noting that these texts often employed “demonization” and “character assassination,” but the article claims these “pro-evolution texts” had far fewer fallacies pertaining to the merits of the argument, and the article is overwhelmingly pro-evolution in its focus, tone, and content. Indeed, amazingly, the paper found that every single ID or “creationist” text had “confirmation bias,” but yet somehow also found “confirmation bias” was present in less than 1/3 of the pro-evolution texts studied — talk about “confirmation bias”!

Again, I haven’t gone through the many references in Nieminen et al.’s PLOS ONE paper to see if other charges of things like “quote mining,” “mental contamination,” “pseudodiagnosticity,” and such in “creationist texts” hold up. I wouldn’t be surprised if they found some sloppiness among the writings and arguments of true “creationists.” I also wouldn’t be shocked if there were other instances of bungled reading, malicious misreading, or “ignoring contrary data” on the part of Nieminen et al. in their article. I only know that in the example I analyzed (which happened to pertain to me), they badly mishandled the sample material. In any case, these sorts of articles appear in journals every so often, and they appear to be more about academic tribalism than serious scholarship — and I don’t think that there’s much stock to be put in them.

In closing, I think it’s unfortunate that Dr. Nieminen could not even reply to my reasonable email asking him to give us the courtesy of explaining exactly what he was referring to in our essay. He and I might have had a friendly, civil dialogue; for my part I would have welcomed that. But apparently for folks of his mindset, contact with us ID proponents is taboo. We are from the untouchable class — not to be treated as intellectual equals, but more like heretics — so it would seem that neither an explanation nor a reply to my email is deserved or appropriate.

Image by Russell Lee [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.


Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.