Quoting out of context (sometimes referred to as contextomy or quote mining) is an informal fallacy in which a passage is removed from its surrounding matter in such a way as to distort its intended meaning. Contextomies may be either intentional or accidental if someone misunderstands the meaning and omits something essential to clarifying it, thinking it to be non-essential. As a fallacy, quoting out of context differs from false attribution, in that the out of context quote is still attributed to the correct source.
Arguments based on this fallacy typically take two forms:
Contextomy refers to the selective excerpting of words from their original linguistic context in a way that distorts the source's intended meaning, a practice commonly referred to as "quoting out of context". The problem here is not the removal of a quote from its original context per se (as all quotes are), but to the quoter's decision to exclude from the excerpt certain nearby phrases or sentences (which become "context" by virtue of the exclusion) that serve to clarify the intentions behind the selected words. Comparing this practice to surgical excision, journalist Milton Mayer coined the term "contextomy" to describe its use by Julius Streicher, editor of the infamous Nazi broadsheet Der Stürmer in Weimar-era Germany. To arouse anti-semitic sentiments among the weekly's working class Christian readership, Streicher regularly published truncated quotations from Talmudic texts that, in their shortened form, appear to advocate greed, slavery, and ritualistic murder. Although rarely employed to this malicious extreme, contextomy is a common method of misrepresentation in contemporary mass media, and studies have demonstrated that the effects of this misrepresentation can linger even after the audience is exposed to the original, in context, quote.
One of the most familiar examples of contextomy is the ubiquitous "review blurb" in advertising. The lure of media exposure associated with being "blurbed" by a major studio may encourage some critics to write positive reviews of mediocre movies. However, even when a review is negative overall, studios have few reservations about excerpting it in a way that misrepresents the critic's opinion.
For example, the ad copy for New Line Cinema's 1995 thriller Se7en attributed to Owen Gleiberman, a critic for Entertainment Weekly, used the comment "a small masterpiece." Gleiberman actually gave Se7en a B− overall and only praised the opening credits so grandiosely: "The credit sequence, with its jumpy frames and near-subliminal flashes of psychoparaphernalia, is a small masterpiece of dementia." Similarly, United Artists contextomized critic Kenneth Turan's review of their flop Hoodlum, including just one word from it—"irresistible"—in the film's ad copy: "Even Laurence Fishburne's incendiary performance can't ignite Hoodlum, a would-be gangster epic that generates less heat than a nickel cigar. Fishburne's 'Bumpy' is fierce, magnetic, irresistible even… But even this actor can only do so much." As a result of these abuses, some critics now deliberately avoid colorful language in their reviews. In 2010, the pop culture magazine Vanity Fair reported that it had been the victim of "reckless blurbing" after the television show Lost had taken a review fragment of "the most confusing, asinine, ridiculous—yet somehow addictively awesome—television show of all time" and only quoted "the most addictively awesome television show of all time" in its promotional material. Carl Bialik recorded an instance of an adverb being applied to a different verb in a 2007 advert for Live Free or Die Hard, where a New York Daily News quote of "hysterically overproduced and surprisingly entertaining" was reduced to "hysterically... entertaining".
In the United States, there is no specific law against misleading movie blurbs, beyond existing regulation over false advertising. The MPAA reviews advertisements for tone and content rather than the accuracy of their citations. Some studios seek approval from the original critic before running a condensed quotation. The European Union's Unfair Commercial Practices Directive prohibits contextomy, and targets companies who "falsely claim accreditation" for their products in ways that are "not being true to the terms of the [original] endorsement". It is enforced in the United Kingdom by the Office of Fair Trading, and carries a maximum penalty of a £5,000 fine or two years imprisonment.
Scientists and their supporters used the term quote mining as early as the mid-1990s in newsgroup posts to describe quoting practices of certain creationists. The term is used by members of the scientific community to describe a method employed by creationists to support their arguments, though it can be and often is used outside of the creation–evolution controversy. Complaints about the practice predate known use of the term: Theodosius Dobzhansky wrote in his famous 1973 essay "Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution":
Their [Creationists'] 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.
This has been compared to the Christian theological method of prooftexting:
Pseudoscientists often reveal themselves by their handling of the scientific literature. Their idea of doing scientific research is simply to read scientific periodicals and monographs. They focus on words, not on the underlying facts and reasoning. They take science to be all statements by scientists. Science degenerates into a secular substitute for sacred literature. Any statement by any scientist can be cited against any other statement. Every statement counts and every statement is open to interpretation.— Radner and Radner, Science and Unreason, ISBN 0-534-01153-5
The Institute for Creation Research (ICR) described the use of "[a]n evolutionist's quote mistakenly used out of context" to "negate the entirety of [an] article and creationist claims regarding the lack of transitional forms" as "a smoke screen".
Both Answers in Genesis (AiG) and Henry M. Morris (founder of ICR) have been accused of producing books of mined quotes. TalkOrigins Archive (TOA) states that "entire books of these quotes have been published" and lists prominent creationist Henry M. Morris's That Their Words May Be Used Against Them and The Revised Quote Book as examples, in addition to a number of online creationist lists of quote-mines. Both AiG and ICR use the following quote from Stephen Jay Gould on intermediate forms.
The fossil record with its abrupt transitions offers no support for gradual change. All paleontologists know that the fossil record contains precious little in the way of intermediate forms; transitions between major groups are characteristically abrupt.
Context shows that Gould rejected the gradualists' explanation for the lack of support for gradual change in favor of his own interpretation. He continues:
... Gradualists usually extract themselves from this dilemma by invoking the extreme imperfection of the fossil record. Although I reject this argument (for reasons discussed in ["The Episodic Nature of Evolutionary Change"]), let us grant the traditional escape and ask a different question.
Knowing that creationists are quoting him as if he were saying there were no transitional forms, Gould responded:
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. The punctuations occur at the level of species; directional trends (on the staircase model) are rife at the higher level of transitions within major groups.
Since the mid-1990s, scientists and their supporters have used the term quote mining to describe versions of this practice as used by certain creationists in the creation–evolution controversy. An example found in debates over evolution is an out-of-context quotation of Charles Darwin in his Origin of Species:
To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.
This sentence, sometimes truncated to the phrase "absurd in the highest degree", is often presented as part of an assertion that Darwin himself believed that natural selection could not fully account for the complexity of life. However, Darwin went on to explain that the apparent absurdity of the evolution of an eye is no bar to its occurrence, and elaborates on its evolution:
Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real.
Besides the creation–evolution controversy, the fallacy of quoting out of context is also used in other areas. In some instances, commentators have used the term quote mining, comparing the practice of others with creationist quote mining.
In the face of the extraordinary and often highly practical twentieth-century progress of the life sciences under the unifying concepts of evolution, [creationist] "science" consists of quote-mining—minute searching of the biological literature—including outdated literature—for minor slips and inconsistencies and for polemically promising examples of internal arguments. These internal disagreements, fundamental to the working of all natural science, are then presented dramatically to lay audiences as evidence of the fraudulence and impending collapse of "Darwinism."