Browse Search Feedback Other Links Home Home
The Talk.Origins Archive: Exploring the Creation/Evolution Controversy

Quotations and Misquotations

Why What Antievolutionists Quote is Not
Valid Evidence Against Evolution

Copyright © 2002-2004
[Posted: February 28, 2002]
[Links updated: March 18, 2004]

  1. What is wrong with antievolutionist arguments via quotations?
    1. The fallacy of the argument from authority
    2. Evolution deniers often use selective quotations
      1. Picking and choosing authorities
      2. Ignoring other relevant things the authority says
    3. Evolution deniers often use out-of-date quotes
    4. Evolution deniers often use inappropriate "authorities"
    5. Evolution deniers are not always honest in representing the identity of the people they quote
    6. Evolution deniers often misquote people
      1. Why misquotes happen
      2. Types of misquotation
  2. More Specific examples of out-of-context quotes by antievolutionists
    1. Classic example from The Genesis Flood
    2. Davies and Sarfati on supernova remnants
  3. Concluding thoughts
  4. Online resources documenting antievolutionist misquotations
    1. Pages from The Talk.Origins Archive
      1. Pages from Fossil Hominids FAQ
      2. Other pages in the Archive
    2. Online resources outside the Archive
  5. References
  6. Acknowledgements

What is wrong with antievolutionist arguments via quotations?

"This is not to imply that we know everything that can and should be known about biology and about evolution. Any competent biologist is aware of a multitude of problems yet unresolved and of questions yet unanswered. After all, biologic research shows no sign of approaching completion; quite the opposite is true. Disagreements and clashes of opinion are rife among biologists, as they should be in a living and growing science. Antievolutionists mistake, or pretend to mistake, these disagreements as indications of dubiousness of the entire doctrine of evolution. Their 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."

One of the favorite tactics of evolution deniers and other pseudoscientists is to use numerous quotations to make their case. For many people the use of quote after quote makes a very persuasive argument. However, the antievolutionist use of quotes is invalid and does not in any way provide evidence for creationism or against evolution. The reasons for this fall into several major categories: the use of quotations often is a fallacy of "argument from authority," selective quotation may be occurring, the quotations are often out-of-date, the quoted authorities are often not appropriate authorities, evolution deniers are sometimes not honest in representing who the people they quote are, and many of the quotations are misquotations.

The fallacy of the argument from authority

When someone -- no matter what kinds of degrees, qualifications, prestige, or honors he has -- is quoted to support a proposition, it does not imply that the proposition is true. To imply otherwise is a common fallacy called the "argument from authority." What should matter is not who agrees with one of your points but rather what evidence you can provide that supports it.

A scientific argument is not like an elementary school book that says "authoritatively" that Albany is the capital of New York, nor is it a high school or college textbook that functions to summarize current theory and practice of a field. The works of antievolutionists are not merely trying to summarize existing mainstream scientific knowledge, but are rather trying to argue that large parts of it are completely wrong. The young-earth creationists in particular are arguing that most of mainstream science is wrong. A few of them propose that is it very close to all being wrong, including most of physics and chemistry. Can one really accomplish a complete overturning of mainstream scientific thinking and establish creationism as scientific knowledge with a list of quotes? The idea is naïve at best.

Some evolution deniers will undoubtedly state that the overwhelming support of evolution by qualified scientists does not by itself prove evolution. They are correct in saying this. Most scientists do not just assert that evolution is correct, but rather provide overwhelming evidence from many fields. If antievolutionists want to say that they are opposed to the "argument from authority," they cannot reject its use for evolution while simultaneously using it to make their own points. For example, if a paleontologist argues that something is a transitional fossil and points to various features of the fossil as evidence, then merely quoting some other authority saying it is not transitional is not an adequate response. The evolution denier must point to specific evidence to argue that it is not transitional.

Sometimes there is need of some sort of authority. Most people couldn't make heads or tails out of a fossil since they lack the knowledge and practical hands-on experience that a professional paleontologist has, just as a paleontologist probably could not make sense of the accounting books of a large multi-national corporation. There is nothing wrong with going to appropriate experts when the need arises. However, when one uses an authority, it is of vital importance that one not merely quote that authority's opinion. It is not merely the authority's opinion that should be used, but rather the authority's evidence, interpretations of evidence, and lines of reasoning that should be used. Furthermore, one cannot ignore the evidence and lines of reasoning of authorities with different views. In science it is the evidence, and not who says it, that should count. If quotes are to be used at all, they should used in an argument and not as an argument.

Real scientific argumentation only rarely involves the use of quotes as anyone who has ever looked at scientific papers or publications knows. When an argument is based on evidence there is little need for frequent quotations. Citations and references in technical papers tend to be for things like where data came from, where an idea was proposed, where methodology was described, where a line of argumentation was made, where a fossil was formally described, and other things along those lines. If the reader doubts that papers only rarely use quotes or wants to see for themselves how how scientists use the work of other scientists there is a simple solution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) is one of the top scientific journals in the world covering virtually the entire breadth of scientific inquiry today. PNAS has its entire contents from 1990 to 2001 available online for free without any need of registration with later issues becoming free after six months. See the contents of the January 2, 2001 issue. The scientific papers begin after the commentaries and perspectives. The issue was chosen because it is, at the time that this paragraph was being written, the "free sample issue" linked from the home page, lest anyone think that the issue was hand-picked for this article. You can examine other issues by clicking the arrows by "other issues."

Evolution deniers often use selective quotations

"The Discovery Institute has used unauthorized, selective quotations from my book In Search of Deep Time to support their outdated, mistaken views."

Picking and choosing authorities

In advertisements for movies, it is usually taken for granted that the studios only quote positive reviews. This kind of Madison Avenue tactic is not a legitimate means of establishing the nature of reality. One cannot just pick the expert whose opinion is convenient for the point one is trying to make while ignoring credible expert opinion to the contrary. This is especially the case when the quoted authority is in the minority among his fellow experts. There might be a very good reason why the authority's views are in the minority. If a writer argues by hand-picking only the experts convenient to him, then that writer has committed the "argument from authority" fallacy. Antievolutionists do this routinely.

Ignoring other relevant things the authority says

"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. Transitional forms are generally lacking at the species level, but they are abundant between larger groups. Yet a pamphlet entitled 'Harvard Scientists Agree Evolution Is a Hoax' states: 'The facts of punctuated equilibrium which Gould and Eldredge...are forcing Darwinists to swallow fit the picture that Bryan insisted on, and which God has revealed to us in the Bible.'"

When one uses an individual authority, one cannot pick and choose his relevant opinions either. If an authority's opinion is credible when he agrees with you then that authority does not become any less of an authority when he disagrees with you. You can disagree with your authority and give the reasons why, but you cannot simply ignore or dismiss him when you don't like what he has to say.

That evolution deniers have to resort to quotes to make their case shows just how little of a case they have.

Evolution deniers often use out-of-date quotes

One must ask whether a quote reflects current knowledge or whether it is out-of-date. Antievolutionists often use quotations that are decades old. A lot of progress has happened in the last several decades. What the quoted person thought was an unsolved problem may have been solved. What the quoted person said has little evidence might now have lots of evidence.

Evolution deniers often use quotes from inappropriate "authorities"

The person being quoted might not be competent or even knowledgeable about the subject he is being quoted on. Antievolutionists often quote non-biologists, who have little knowledge about the field of evolution, as if they were "authorities" in the field. If the reader would be unimpressed by a biologist's opinion of astronomical issues, then he should be equally unimpressed by an astronomer's opinion of biological issues. Chemists, physicists, mathematicians, or astronomers are almost always laymen when they discuss biology.

Of course there is nothing wrong with a layman making a scientific case so long as he argues substantively and is not presented as an "authority" in biology or evolution.

Evolution deniers also often quote one person and then another in a mix-or-match fashion with little regard to whether the persons being quoted represent a mainstream scientific viewpoint, a minority scientific viewpoint, or are considered to be cranks.

Evolution deniers are not always honest in representing the identity of the people they quote

The people the antievolutionists quote are not always who the antievolutionists say they are.

Of course, like everyone else, a scientist may sometimes say dumb things or be careless with his wordings. Also be careful of statements by authorities that might be exaggerations or self-promotion. Statements in the press that a new discovery changes everything that we thought we knew about something are frequently exaggerations or self-promotion.

Thus even without the use of misquotations, one can "prove" pretty much anything by the use of quotations. Argumentation via quote after quote is dubious at best for deciding scientific disputes. This is one reason why scientific papers only rarely use quotes to make their case.

Evolution deniers often misquote people

"It does not surprise me that I am being misquoted because, after all, this is practically the only defense creationists have."

Antievolutionists have consistently used misquotations. This document will give some of the many examples.

Why misquotes happen

There are many reasons why misquotations occur.

Types of misquotation

"When I first encountered his [Jonathan Wells] attempts at journalism, I thought he might be a woefully deficient scholar because his critiques about peppered moth research were full of errors, but soon it became clear that he was intentionally distorting the literature in my field. He lavishly dresses his essays in quotations from experts (including some from me) which are generally taken out of context, and he systematically omits relevant details to make our conclusions seem ill founded, flawed, or fraudulent."

There are many ways to misquote someone.

Even if the words are quoted accurately, this does not guarantee that it is not a misquotation.

More Specific examples of out-of-context quotes by antievolutionists

"So it goes. One scientist after another receives the Creationist treatment. Any qualifying comment, any deviation from orthodoxy is a potential target. Ripped from its context, it can be made to serve the Creationists' purpose, namely, to convince the uninitiated that Creationist theses are sometimes advanced by scientists in scientific debates. But anyone can play the same game. In conclusion, I cannot resist turning the weapon against the Creationist who has used it to its greatest effect. Referring to the controversy about transitional forms, Gish writes, 'There should be no room for question, no possibility of doubt, no opportunity for debate, no rationale whatsoever for the existence of the Institute for Creation Research' (Gish 1981, ii). How true."

- Philip Kitcher,
  Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism13

Classic example from The Genesis Flood

A classic example of an antievolutionist misquotation comes from The Genesis Flood by John C. Whitcomb and Henry M. Morris.14  This book is arguably the most influential young-earth creationist book in the latter half of the twentieth century. They quote C. P. Ross and Richard Rezak.15  The green text below is quoted by Whitcomb and Morris and black text is what they did not quote. The context of the quote is the young-earthers trying to debunk the existence of the Lewis overthrust by claiming some disturbed strata were little disturbed or undisturbed. Ross and Rezak wrote:

Folds that originated at the time represented by plate 53B but that have been accentuated and locally broken by the later pressures, are visible in ridges, cliffs, and canyon walls both in the mountains south of Glacier National Park and in the part of the Great Plains within some 20 miles of the mountain edge at the eastern border of the park. All the sedimentary rocks that were present were squeezed and folded, but the Belt series, being strong and buried under a blanket of other rocks, was deformed the least. Most visitors, especially those who stay on the roads, get the impression that the Belt of strata are undisturbed and lie almost as flat today as they did when deposited in the sea which vanished so many million years ago. Actually they are folded, and in certain zones they are intensely so. From points on and near the trails in the park it is possible to observe places where the beds of the Belt series, as revealed in outcrops on ridges, cliffs, and canyon walls, are folded and crumpled almost as intricately as the soft younger strata in the mountains south of the park and in the Great Plains adjoining the park to the east.

More details on the Whitcomb and Morris misquotation are presented in the Thrust Faults FAQ. That FAQ covers what Morris said in rebuttal to the out-of-context charge, another out-of-context quote of Ross and Rezak by Whitcomb and Morris, and other false young-earth creationist claims on thrust faults in general and the Lewis Overthrust in particular. Far more recent misquoting by Morris is documented in "Just what DO they say Dr. Morris?"

Davies and Sarfati on supernova remnants

Keith Davies quotes16 two astronomers and Jonathan Sarfati of Answers in Genesis repeats17 the quotes saying:

As the evolutionist astronomers Clark and Caswell say, 'Why have the large number of expected remnants not been detected?' and these authors refer to 'The mystery of the missing remnants'.

Both of them give the impression that astronomers cannot explain the number of observed supernova remnants assuming an old universe. The Clark and Caswell paper is online. Both quotes are on page 301. As the reader can easily verify, "Why have the large number of expected remnants not been detected?" is a rhetorical question. And "The mystery of the missing remnants" is followed by "is also solved."

Davies also misquotes the astronomer Donald P. Cox. Cox's article is also online and the reader can check the page where the quote was taken. What Davies quotes is in green and what he did not quote will be left in black:

The final example is the SNR population of the Large Magellanic Cloud. The observations (many collected in Mathewson et al. 1983) have caused considerable surprise and loss of confidence in simple models such as those in this paper.

The phrase "in simple models" changes the meaning considerably and thus the quote is out-of-context. More details on young-earth creationist misquotes on this subject can be found in the Misquoting and Paraphrasing section of the Supernovae, Supernova Remnants and Young Earth Creationism FAQ.

Concluding thoughts

Brian and Sandra Alters18 give some good advice for classroom instructors that is just plain good advice for everyone else as well:

When students read or hear the out-of-context quotes from such a book [That Their Words May be Used Against Them from the Institute for Creation Research], they quite often think that evolution must be a theory in crisis within the scientific community. If creationist students suddenly quote respected evolutionary scientists and expect science instructors to respond instantly (without even knowing the context of the quotes) we recommend the following two actions: (1) instructors should explain to the students that they are cognizant of the scientists being quoted (if they are) and that the evidence compels these scientists to conclude that evolution is an accurate scientific theory, and (2) instructors request that the students bring in the original sources of the quotes of the quotes so that they can read in context. Having the original source (not the quote book) will allow instructors to illustrate to students that there is an entire book or article surrounding the one quote and that the publication is not challenging the occurrence of evolution. The goal of this exercise is not for students to find evolution compelling simply because experts find the data compelling; they should examine the evidence and come to their own conclusions. However, when students quote these experts, they need to understand clearly the positions of the people they quoting and the contextual meaning of the quotes [footnote omitted].

If you are a creationist who rejects evolution then before you use such quotes, do look them up in the original. If you a supporter of evolution and find evolution deniers giving you quotations, demand that they personally look up their quotes in the original. And always be wary any quote that seems "too good" to be true. If the quote makes you ask "how could this person accept evolution?" it is probably best to assume their is something wrong with the quotation until concrete evidence provided and independent verification is done. That is not dogma, but the voice of experience. Antievolutionists have "cried wolf" far too many times.

To sum up, when evolution deniers provide quotations many questions need to be asked including:

If a verifiable reference is not provided then consider the quote to be hearsay. Also remember that it very easy to find statements by qualified statements strongly supporting evolution and/or objecting to how they have been quoted by evolution deniers. This ends the essay portion of this document. The next section gives online sources for the reader to continue exploring this issue.

Online resources documenting antievolutionist misquotations

The Fossil Hominid FAQ of The Talk.Origins Archive has several pages on creationist misquotations on human evolution: Here are some other pages of The Talk.Origins Archive that are about creationist misquotes: The following articles from The Talk.Origins Archive that that, in part, address creationist misquotations: Here are some pages on the web that address creationist misquotations: A searchable archive on creationist quotes can be found at Antievolution Quotes and Misquotes: The Archive.


1. "Is Archaeopteryx a 'missing link,'?" Accessed online on January 31, 2002.
2. Alan Feduccia, The Origin and Evolution of Birds, (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1996), p. 1. The same quote sans the Rosetta stone clause appears in: Alan Feduccia, The Age of Birds, (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1980), p. 1.
3. " Anthropology," Accessed online on December 30, 2001.
4. Scott M. Huse, The Collapse of Evolution, (Grand Rapids, Mi, Baker Book House, 1983), p. 119. Some readers will find Huse's reference in the same page of a "Nobel Peace Prize in science" amusing.
5. John Woodmorappe, "New Educational Activities for Home Schooling Science: A Hands-on Science Activity that Demonstrates the Atheism and Nihilism of Evolution," Accessed online on January 22, 2002.
6. Daisie Radner & Michael Radner, Science and Unreason, (Belmont, Ca; Wadsworth, 1982), p. 48.
7. Black Hills Creation Science Association: Newsletter, Last accessed online on July 29, 2003.
8. Niles Eldredge, Time Frames : The Re-Thinking of Darwinian Evolution and the Theory of Punctuated Equilibria, (New York, Simon and Schuster, 1985), pp. 51-52.
9. Don Patton, Evidence for Creation: Fossil Record, Accessed online on February 7, 2002.
10. Stephen Jay Gould's essay can be found in three places: 1) Discover May 1981. 2) Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes: Further Reflections in Natural History, (New York, NY: Norton, 1983), pp. 253-262. 3)
11. Jonathan Wells, Icons of Evolution: Science or Myth?: Why Much of What We Teach About Evolution is Wrong, (Washington D.C., Regnery, 2000), pp. 41-42.
12. James W. Valentine, Stanley M. Awramik, Philip W. Signor, and Peter M. Sadler, "The Biological Explosion at the Precambrian-Cambrian Boundary," Evolutionary Biology 25: 279-356, 1991. Quote is from pp. 293-294. Valentine's reference is "Valentine, J. W., 1969, Patterns of taxonomic and ecological structure of the shelf benthos during Phanerozoic time, Palaeontology 12:684-709."
13. Philip Kitcher, Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism, (Cambridge, The MIT Press, 1982), p 185. Kitcher's reference is "Gish, D. T. 1981. Acts, Facts and Impacts (December issue)."
14. John C. Whitcomb & Henry M. Morris, The Genesis Flood, (Grand Rapids, Mi; Baker, 1961), p. 187, footnote 1.
15. C. P. Ross & Richard Rezak, "The Rocks and Fossils of Glacier National Park: The Story of Their Origin and History," United States Geological Survey Professional Paper 294-K, p. 420.
16. Keith Davies, "Distribution of Supernova Remnants in the Galaxy," in E. Walsh, ed., Proceedings of the Third International Conference on Creationism , (Pittsburgh, Creation Science Fellowship, 1994) Creation Science Fellowship, Pittsburgh, pp. 175-184. Accessed online on November 28, 2001. Linked updated and content reverified on March 12, 2004.
17. Jonathan Sarfati, "Exploding stars point to a young universe: Where are all the supernova remnants?" Creation Ex Nihilo 19:46-48, June/August 1997. Accessed online on November 28, 2001.
18. Brian J. Alters and Sandra M. Alters, Defending Evolution: A Guide to the Creation/Evolution Controversy, (Sudbury, Ma; Jones and Bartlett, 2001), pp. 91-92.


Many people provided advice or were otherwise helpful in the making of this resource. Of course, any errors or assaults on the English language are solely the responsibility of the author. Any opinions expressed in this document are that of the author and not of any other person or organization unless explicitly stated. A very partial list of helpful persons includes Cathy Ball, Coragyps, Pete Dunkelberg, Adam Marczyk, Morpho, The Sapient, John Solum, Nic Tamzek, Douglas Theobald, theyeti, and Ed Vinson. This document is dedicated to all those who have bothered to look up what the evolution deniers have quoted and published or posted the results.

Home Browse Search Feedback Other Links The FAQ Must-Read Files Index Evolution Creationism Age of the Earth Flood Geology Catastrophism Debates
Home Page | Browse | Search | Feedback | Links
The FAQ | Must-Read Files | Index | Creationism | Evolution | Age of the Earth | Flood Geology | Catastrophism | Debates