Pharyngula

A reader brought to my attention this outrageously dishonest mangling of a quote by that creationist, Casey Luskin. He writes:

In January, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences weighed in on this debate, declaring that “[t]here is no scientific controversy about the basic facts of evolution,”1 because neo-Darwinism is “so well established that no new evidence is likely to alter2 it. As an undergraduate and graduate student taking multiple courses covering evolutionary biology at the University of California San Diego, that is what I was told as well. My science courses rarely, if ever, allowed students to seriously entertain the possibility that Darwin’s theory might be fundamentally flawed.

First rule of reading creationist literature: never trust an ellipsis. They always leave something significant out to change the meaning. Second rule of reading creationist literature: if they don’t use an ellipsis, they’re still going to distort a quote. Basically, you can’t trust anything these guys say. Luskin is claiming to be quoting something from the National Academy of Sciences booklet, Science, Evolution, and Creationism. How honest is his scholarship?

The first part of the quote is from page 52, near the end of the book. Here it is in context:

1There is no scientific controversy about the basic facts of evolution. In this sense the intelligent design movement’s call to “teach the controversy” is unwarranted. Of course, there remain many interesting questions about evolution, such as the evolutionary origin of sex or different mechanisms of speciation, and discussion of these questions is fully warranted in science classes.

Where do you think we’ll find the second half of his quote? Page 53, maybe? Page 54? No. You’ll have to thumb backwards through the book, to a place near the beginning: page 16.

2Many scientific theories are so well established that no new evidence is likely to alter them substantially. For example, no new evidence will demonstrate that the Earth does not orbit around the Sun (heliocentric theory), or that living things are not made of cells (cell theory), that matter is not composed of atoms, or that the surface of the Earth is not divided into solid plates that have moved over geological timescales (the theory of plate tectonics).

So what Casey Luskin has done is to flip through the book and manufacture quotes by splicing together clauses from scattered sentences. Students who tried to pull this kind of unethical crap in a term paper would get an automatic “F” from me…yet Luskin reportedly has a law degree.

Aren’t journalists supposed to have some kind of ethical standards about this sort of thing? Do they simply suspend any regard for reasonable journalistic values when some right-wing think-tank like the Discovery Institute mails in some PR pablum?

Comments

  1. #1 extatyzoma
    March 9, 2008

    heres the good news, i found this on the DI’s website “evolution is” “true” “theres lots of” “evidence to support it”

    cool.

  2. #2 C.E. Petit
    March 9, 2008

    I see this sort of nonsense from lawyers every day. It’s a relic of the way lawyers are taught to write (loud chorus: badly): That no part of a legal argument is worthwhile if if cannot be supported by a soundbite (or, more often, string of soundbites) showing that someone else has already accepted exactly that proposition.

    Neither logic nor context has any place in the first-year legal writing class, nor on the bar examination. I’ve seen similar BS coming from graduates of much, much better law schools than the University of San Diego, and certainly saw enough of it in class while I was in law school at one of those “much, much better law schools.” Just because I don’t stoop to those tactics does not, however, mean that I don’t know how to deal with them; Luskin should be very, very happy that he’s never seen me in court.

  3. #3 Brian
    March 9, 2008

    Journalists? Do we have any journalists in this country? I thought we just had typists.

  4. #4 Betz
    March 9, 2008

    It’s evolution in action: from “quote mining” to “quote manufacturing.”

  5. #5 Don
    March 9, 2008

    I have a copy of the OED and I’m not afraid to use it.

  6. #6 Rev. BigDumbChimp
    March 9, 2008

    Casy Luskin wrote:

    SQUEEK

  7. #7 Dan
    March 9, 2008

    There is no …sense [in] intelligent design.

    Woohoo! I can quote-mine too.

  8. #8 blf
    March 9, 2008

    Do the (alleged) laqyer tactics condone quoting “I do not support ID, which, unlike evolution, is a fraud” as “I … support ID … [E]volution, [sic] is a fraud”?

    Whilst that’s not exactly what they’ve done in this case, it is quite similar. And it can be quoted out-of-order to become “[E]volution, [sic] is a fraud” and hence “I … support ID”.

    Surely that is unethical, even for a lawyer?

  9. #9 Mike O'Risal
    March 9, 2008

    At first I thought, “That’s despicable.” Then I realized, “That’s Luskin.”

    Oh, and Happy Birthday, PZ.

  10. #10 kid bitzer
    March 9, 2008

    yeah, that’s dubious behavior.

    but could someone point out to me the particular distortion involved? i.e., what is it exactly that someone might come to believe on the basis of this manufactured quote, that they would not be entitled to believe on the basis of the original NAS report?

    i’m just not seeing it. isn’t the line from p. 16 about “many scientific theories” intended by the NAS author to include the “theory” of evolution as well? and if that’s right, then wouldn’t the author be willing to agree with luskin’s concatenation?

    i’m not trying to be contrarian here, i think i’m just missing the deception. i agree quote-mining in general is despicable, but i’d like to see the damage here.

  11. #11 Ed Darrell
    March 9, 2008

    1. Yes, there is a code of ethics promulgated by the Society of Professional Journalists. Luskin claims to have written the piece, however, not an SPJ member. It appears to have been published as an opposite-editorial page opinion piece. Often the editorial board and the editors of the op-ed pages are not steeped in journalism practices, and they don’t always follow them. Sometimes the boards bend over backwards to let a fool make a fool of himself in print.

    Still, a fact checker should have caught those errors. They are egregious. Newspapers are firing their fact checkers. Cost-savings, you know.

    2. Were Luskin to make such an argument in a legal brief, he should be sanctioned. It’s unethical. Luskin doesn’t make any pretense to practice law, however, and I’m sure he’d plead that he’s not lawyering were anyone to call the attention of the ethics branch of the California Bart to Luskin’s egregious quotation manufacturing here. In law school, students are taught that lawyers should live up to higher standards all the way around, even when the judge is not looking. I wasn’t there, so I cannot say whether or not Luskin missed that class, or that question on the ethics exam.

    Still, we oughtta look up the canons to see which ones he’s violating, if any, just for fun and future reference.

    3. Since it was published on the Op-Ed page, it’s inviting rebuttals. Are there any biologists at the University of San Diego who’d like to save the reputation of the school?

  12. #12 danley
    March 9, 2008

    This is why Nixon employed Stein as a speech writer.

  13. #13 rrt
    March 9, 2008

    To a limited degree I agree, kid. I think the deception Luskin was (rather ineptly) trying to accomplish was to give the manufactured quote stronger connotations than the originals had, especially to carry the creationist meme that biologists are closed-minded dogmatists who allow no challenge or dissent. PZ points this out in the full quotes he reproduces; in them you can see the sense of “of course there are lots of good unanswered questions about evolution that are worth discussing in class” that Luskin wants to pretend doesn’t exist.

  14. #14 kid bitzer
    March 9, 2008

    rrt–if that’s the deceptive part, then it seems to me it occurs in this part of the paragraph:

    “My science courses rarely, if ever, allowed students to seriously entertain the possibility that Darwin’s theory might be fundamentally flawed.”

    granted–that line’s a crock of shit, because it implies that students *should* be seriously entertaining the possibility that the theory is fundamentally flawed. yes; that is an insinuation of a falsehood on luskin’s part.

    but he could have done that even if he had kept the two quotes from pp. 16 and 52 straight (as he should have).

    so maybe the quote-mashing itself has some further tendency to suggest a falsehood that i’m not seeing yet?

  15. #15 Eigenvector
    March 9, 2008

    PZ, Thank you for sorting all this out. Fie on a misused ellipesis. These ID guys drive me crazy with their lies. Keep up the good fight!

  16. #16 Jon Merz
    March 9, 2008

    From a jungle of dishonesty, weeding out this particular Luskin quote just seems odd. It doesn’t look, to me, like he flagrantly misrepresented the position of NAS. “Outrageously dishonest?”

  17. #17 Glen Davidson
    March 9, 2008

    That is bizarre.

    I understand that the media might feel that they have to publish CRC press releases due to some sense of “balance”, but if so, they have the obligation to check on the constant stream of lies coming out of there. Nothing they put out should be considered to be honest until it has been thoroughly vetted.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/2kxyc7

  18. #18 Digital
    March 9, 2008

    You know whats funny?

    They’re still winning.

    Bottom line, they say this nonsense most idiots (i.e. most of the population) aren’t going to look it up. They are going to eat it up.

    The 10% of the population who are going to see its a lie, prove it, and post it, are the only ones who will ever read this. Meanwhile the other 90% are mis-informed and furthering the ID cause… beliveing this nonsense makes them hostile toward evolution so that even mounds of evidence are overlooked… simply because they veiw this as fact.

    Tell me, haven’t you all watched this. I’m sure you’re like me and you see these arguments every day online. And for every story we see this crap, there are thousands in classrooms, in churches, in shopping malls… the damage is done.

    This is their goal with “Expelled” as well.

    They are winning this fight because they know how to preach to stupidity, they’ve been doing it for years. You honestly think fact can overpower belife?

    Only when the majority of the population is shown facts and understand them will we make headway, but they have the trump card over us: Facts and information are slow and boring, while tag lines and stupidity are fast and bite sized.

    Who’s going to read up on the chemical processes, the evidence in fossils… when they can just have the answers spoon fed to them by people who have already made up their minds what is in their best intrest. Hell, I love science and I have to try to keep reading on some of the blander stuff. Imagine how hard that is for people who think ‘reading is hard’. The mono-sylabic drones the world is made of.

    They are winning this fight, and it’s a shame… imagine what the human race could have been.

    (all %’s pulled at random)

  19. #19 Timo
    March 9, 2008

    Intelligent deception in action.

  20. #20 Ron
    March 9, 2008

    As an alumnus of the University of California, San Diego, I wish Luskin had attended the University of San Diego. Unfortunately, he didn’t. UCSD is taking a more aggressive approach towards spreading the word on evolution (possibly not aggressive enough at getting the word out over the net). Take a look at: http://greymatters.ucsd.edu/ Videos of the lectures slowly become available on the net.

  21. #21 Turcano
    March 9, 2008

    Aren’t journalists supposed to have some kind of ethical standards about this sort of thing? Do they simply suspend any regard for reasonable journalistic values when some right-wing think-tank like the Discovery Institute mails in some PR pablum?

    Many journalists tend to practice what I like to call “perverse egalitarianism,” the idea that both sides are equally right or valid. Why they do this is unclear; it could be simple laziness, or it could be due a postmodernist mindset that sees objective truth as an impossibility. Whatever the reason, it means that much of today’s journalism has little to no analytic value, opting instead for printing both sides’ press releases and telling the reader to figure it out for themselves.

  22. #22 John B. Sandlin
    March 9, 2008

    For those not seeing the evil in the twisting by Luskin: Here is what the rest of us see:

    The way the quote is put together the implication isn’t that evidence to disprove the theory is unlikely, but that even if such evidence surfaces it will be rejected – thus the lie.

    jbs

  23. #23 Ichthyic
    March 9, 2008

    Casy Luskin wrote:
    SQUEEK

    LOL

    the world’s largest attack mouse strikes again.

  24. #24 MAJeff, OM
    March 9, 2008

    Many journalists tend to practice what I like to call “perverse egalitarianism,”

    In teaching Media Studies (and news media) we refer to it as the “objectivity norm.” Nothing to do with objective reality, but with not favoring one “side” over another.

  25. #25 zy
    March 9, 2008

    As an old journalism prof said, “People think journalists have got no ethics. Not true. We’ve got lots of ethics. We’ve got ethics we haven’t even used.”

  26. #26 Josh
    March 9, 2008

    Just to play Devil’s Advocate, there would be nothing wrong with what Luskin did if the conclusion implied by his quotation could be reasonably inferred from the context of the original. From what PZ excerpted, it cannot; but perhaps in another section the author does assert that evolution is, in fact, such an irrefutable theory. Since I don’t know, I’ll have to give Luskin the benefit of the doubt. I’ll be waiting to be set straight, though.

    Also, I disagree somewhat with C.E. It’s not fair to compare legal writing with other types of writing. Good legal writing will never make a good op-ed, and vice versa. That doesn’t make either bad writing. However, if one were to write and op-ed in a legal writing style, that would be bad. To that extent, I agree.

  27. #27 Janine
    March 9, 2008

    Casy Luskin wrote:

    SQUEEK

    Posted by: Rev. BigDumbChimp

    LOL

    the world’s largest attack mouse strikes again.

    Posted by: Ichthyic

    Would this make Luskin “The Mouse That Roared”? Is he the new Peter Sellers? I want to see him as Chancey Gardener.

  28. #28 Ichthyic
    March 9, 2008

    Is he the new Peter Sellers?

    you mean, able to play many different fictional roles in the same movie?

    yeah, that works.

    He should give up being an attack mouse for the Disinformation Institute and launch his new career as an actor.

  29. #29 Ichthyic
    March 9, 2008

    but perhaps in another section the author does assert that evolution is, in fact, such an irrefutable theory.

    you could always read the original and find out for yourself.

    or would you even bother before commenting?

    are you incapable of setting yourself straight?

  30. #30 Benji
    March 9, 2008

    MaJeff,

    unfortunately, one may argue, strongly, that objective reality has to do with science.

    Hence in the context of scientific journalism, shouldn’t journalists have a different approach in the manner that they convey and/or promote information?

    I’m conscious that your remark was informative, but it allows me to raise the issue.

  31. #31 kid bitzer
    March 9, 2008

    different question:
    is this Luskin related to Donald Luskin, the stupidest man in the world?

  32. #32 dzho
    March 9, 2008

    Okay, I’ll bite. His terminology is (deliberately?) misleading, and the whole article is crap, including the last sentence of the paragraph. And obviously we are going to draw different implications, connotations, or inferences than a fundy would.

    BUT.

    It’s not a quote, it’s two quotes, clearly marked as such, with the second one given in explanatory support of the first. Even though I personally couldn’t, PZ was able to look up the exact references. Luskin incorporates these two quotes to bolster his statement that since the theory is well established and unlikely to change, the basic facts are not controversial. That’s just true. Please explain my automatic ‘F’ for not seeing the problem there?

  33. #33 Janine
    March 9, 2008

    Is he the new Peter Sellers?

    you mean, able to play many different fictional roles in the same movie?

    yeah, that works.

    He should give up being an attack mouse for the Disinformation Institute and launch his new career as an actor.

    Posted by: Ichthyic

    I am afraid I am explaining my little joke. In the movie, Being There, Peter Sellers plays a very simple man known as Chance the gardener. All he knows is gardening and what he has watched on TV. One day he leaves his home in DC and ends up staying with an attorney. Through a series of extreme misunderstandings, Chance’s utterances about gardening and TV are taken by the President to be profound statements.

    Call my obtuse way of calling Luskin an IDiot.

  34. #34 Tim Fuller
    March 9, 2008

    Aren’t journalists supposed to have some kind of ethical standards about this sort of thing?
    ———-

    Journalists at one time perhaps, lawyers, never.

    Enjoy.

  35. #35 waldteufel
    March 9, 2008

    When I first started reading the crap that Casey puts on the DI blog I thought he was just stupid.

    Now I’ve come to think that he’s not only stupid, but
    arrogant, lazy, and just a tool. He touts himself as a “scientist and attorney”, but his writings demonstrate that he is neither.

  36. #36 Ichthyic
    March 9, 2008

    @Janine,

    I know, I got the reference to Chauncey.

    I just wanted to add that it also works for looking at it from the perspective of Luskin being in the habit of playing many fictional roles at the same time, and wears many masks (he likes to play scientist, politician, theologist, and lawyer, all at the same time often enough).

    Like Sellers in Mouse that Roared, also in Dr. Strangelove.

    In short, I so much agreed with your reference, I suggested that indeed Lyin’ Luskin might make more money on the acting circuit.

  37. #37 Monado, FCD
    March 9, 2008

    Actually, one of the subjects in creationist colleges appears to be “Re-interpretation research.” I believe this is what they mean: distorting others’ writing to make it appear to convey a meaning that the original authors did not intend.

  38. #38 Monado, FCD
    March 9, 2008

    Dzho, he made the second quote into a lie by changing its subject. The original piece did not say, “neo-Darwinism is so well established,” it said “many theories are so well established…” and to make that quote accurate, he would have had to use a grammatical subject that somehow indicated plural, unspecific theories.

    And kid bitzer, the NAS might have said it, but they didn’t and Luskin has no right to say that they did.

    If you’re going to rebut someone, represent them accurately or all your effort is lost as soon as people notice the straw stuffing in your version of the opponent.

  39. #39 David Marjanovi?, OM
    March 10, 2008

    Many journalists tend to practice what I like to call “perverse egalitarianism,” the idea that both sides are equally right or valid. Why they do this is unclear;

    Because — in the USA at least — they start from the assumption that there are two sides to every issue. It doesn’t even enter their heads that sometimes there’s just one or three or five or ten.

  40. #40 David Marjanovi?, OM
    March 10, 2008

    Many journalists tend to practice what I like to call “perverse egalitarianism,” the idea that both sides are equally right or valid. Why they do this is unclear;

    Because — in the USA at least — they start from the assumption that there are two sides to every issue. It doesn’t even enter their heads that sometimes there’s just one or three or five or ten.

  41. #41 slpage
    March 10, 2008

    Wait a minute – Luskin has an undergrad and M.S. degree in geology – just how much evolutionary BIOLOGY would he have taken?

  42. #42 midnight rambler
    March 10, 2008

    For those not seeing the evil in the twisting by Luskin: Here is what the rest of us see:

    The way the quote is put together the implication isn’t that evidence to disprove the theory is unlikely, but that even if such evidence surfaces it will be rejected – thus the lie.

    Yeah, my first reaction was like that of some of the early posters, and it took me a few reads before I realized it. I suppose a creationist would have picked it up immediately though. Really, it should be reversed: neo-Darwinism is “so well established that no new evidence is likely to alter” it because “[t]here is no scientific controversy about the basic facts of evolution”.

  43. #43 torcant
    March 10, 2008

    Theists do this type of quoting with the bible all the time. This is very normal practice for them. This person is just doing the same thing in a scientific context.

  44. #44 MIke McKeown
    March 10, 2008

    WRT whether evidence to the contrary would be ignored, we have some retrospective positive controls.

    In the last century, and even in the last 10-15 years, serious paradigms have been challenged in fields related to the history and laws of the universe. Newton’s laws, as taught in schools, turn out to be incompatible with results at high speeds or high gravitational fields. Quantum mechanics. There is too much (dark) matter and too much dark energy to fit current models. Now we find that satellites getting gravitational sling shots, and deep space probes heading out of the solar system speed up more than expected.

    This doesn’t address changing ideas on mass extinctions, or continental drift.

    In biology, just in the last few years we have discovered a whole range of phenomena that involve RNA mediated changes in gene expression. Do we cover them up? No, we rush of to study them.

    Indeed, almost all arguments trying to invoke science to support creationism/ID are based on recent unexpected but understudy observations, except of course, for the kind of arguments Darwin already countered.

  45. #45 dzho
    March 10, 2008

    Monado: Well, what he quoted is an adjectival verb phrase: it doesn’t have a subject to change, and it can’t be a lie because it doesn’t even form a proposition. The original subject and verb, “many theories are” are not part of the quote. Luskin used his own subject and verb, “…neo-Darwinism is…”, together with grammatically proper subject-object agreement, to make a new proposition concerning a different topic.

    Nor did Luskin ever quote NAS as saying “neo-Darwinism is so well established…”. He first quotes them as saying there was no controversy over evolution, which is exactly what they did say. He continued the sentence with his opinion why they declared that, namely that neo-Darwinism is well-established. That’s sort of reasonable given that he gives the same meaning to all the terms {neo-Darwinian evolution, biological evolution, evolution, and neo-Darwinism}. In the second quote the object pronoun”it” refers back to whatever that meaning is, via one or other of the two latter terms.

    He made his statement about neo-Darwinism-qua-evolution parallel that of NAS about “many scientific theories”, which is an awkward way of working it in as one of “many scientific theories” that “are bla bla bla”. It’s clear what he meant by it, and the VP he lifted was properly attributed to its author via quote marks, as it should be.

    “If you’re going to rebut someone, represent them accurately,” yeah.

  46. #46 dzho
    March 11, 2008

    Thanks, midnight rambler, now I think I see the problem. Luskin’s sentence is grammatically ambiguous, like “I see a squid on a bicycle”, so it can be properly interpreted with either of two meanings.

    (1) [NAS said X] because Y
    X= there’s no controvery; Y = its too well estabnlished to likely be altered.
    [ NAS said that "there is no scientific controversy about the basic facts of evolution". ] because it [is "so well established that no new evidence is likely to alter"] it.
    This is how I read it–no big deal. But, it could also be read as

    (2) NAS said [X because Y]
    NAS said that ["there is no scientific controversy ...evolution" because n-D is "so well established that no new evidence is likely to alter"] it.
    But this is kind of garbled, could even be seen as “dishonest mangling of a quote” because NAS didn’t actually say [X because Y] .

    Either interpretation is valid, so the argument is largely about what the author intended. Interpretations vary with demographic group. It seems many readers of Pharyngula–much more knowledgable than I–automatically chose the second interpretation, whereas I had to struggle to even see it, so I wonder if creationists would automatically choose the first.

    The alternate semantic reading, where new evidence would be rejected, did occur to me. It seemed obvious that if new evidence good enough to alter the basic facts was likely, there would fer sure be controvery about the theory, but loony fundy logic might not see it that way.

  47. #47 esh
    March 11, 2008
  48. #48 GregK
    March 22, 2008

    You not only completely failed to make your case, but a summary pamphlet by the National Academy of Sciences says almost exactly what the quote from the Discovery Institute says. (See “Science, Evolution and Creationism,” which can be accessed here. http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=11876)

    It say, in relevant part, “Some scientific explanations are so well established that no new evidence is likely to alter them. The explanation becomes a scientific theory.”

    And again, “Scientists no longer question the basic facts of evolution as a process.”

    That sounds amazingly like what the Discovery Institute said. So it seems that you owe them an apology.

    If your standard for quoting a piece of work is that the words have to be near one another, you have a very strange standard indeed. The question is whether the words accurately reflect what the document is saying, and they clearly do, as the National Academy of Sciences makes clear in their own summary!

    What’s even more disturbing is that it took me about 2 minutes to figure this out. So rather than doing a very little bit of research, you pop off with an accusation. That’s disgraceful.

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