Quoting Out of Context
Text, without context, is pretext.2
Have the various fossil candidates for a place in our human ancestry stood the test of time?
Answer: One by one, various fossil man finds have flashed across the front pages of the newspapers and been the subject of many scientific studies and reports, only to be at last either discredited or just forgotten, replaced by newer finds which also eventually fade away. In 1981 British scientist John Reader commented on this Hollywood character of some of our former alleged ancestors:"Not many (if any) [fossil hominids] have held the stage for long; by now laymen could be forgiven for regarding each new arrival as no less ephemeral than the weather forecast. "3
To quote out of context is to remove a passage from its surrounding matter in such a way as to distort its meaning. The context in which a passage occurs always contributes to its meaning, and the shorter the passage the larger the contribution. For this reason, the quoter should always be careful to quote enough of the context not to misrepresent the meaning of the quote. Of course, in some sense, all quotation is out of context, but by a "contextomy", I refer only to those quotes whose meaning is changed by a loss of context. The fallacy of quoting out of context is committed when a contextomy is offered as evidence in an argument. Such fallacious quoting can take two distinct forms:
- Straw Man: This form is especially common in political debates, when opponents are quoted out of context in order to misrepresent their position, thus making them easier to refute. Frequently, the loss of context makes them sound simplistic or extreme.
- Appeal to Authority: Naturally enough, arguments from authority often quote experts as a premiss. However, it is possible to quote even legitimate experts out of context so as to misrepresent their opinions, which is a form of misleading appeal to authority. This is what is happening in the Example, above.
Australopithecus afarensis is the latest fossil hominid to be thrust before the public as the oldest evidence of mankind's existence. Not many (if any) have held the stage for long; by now laymen could be forgiven for regarding each new arrival as no less ephemeral than the weather forecast.4
Kofahl quotes Reader as evidence of his claim that "fossil hominids" are discredited, but Reader's previous sentence makes it clear that he is saying only that it is the title to "oldest evidence of mankind's existence" that is ephemeral. In other words, still older evidence is discovered with sufficient frequency to make the title of "oldest" short-lived. This is no evidence at all supporting Kofahl's contention, in fact it is contrary evidence. By omitting the first sentence, the impression is created that Reader is talking about all "fossil hominids", instead of just the oldest ones. This false impression is reinforced by Kofahl's misleading editorial insertion in brackets of the phrase "fossil hominids".
- S. Morris Engel, With Good Reason: An Introduction to Informal Fallacies (Sixth Edition, 2000), pp. 114-18. See the entry for the fallacy of Accent for why this is a misleading name for Quoting Out of Context.
- Jesse Jackson, quoted in Sheldon R. Gawiser & G. Evans Witt, A Journalist's Guide to Public Opinion Polls (1994), p. 111. Friend of The Fallacy Files John Congdon emailed about the Jesse Jackson quote:
The problem is that Rev. Jackson was himself quoting Dr. Donald A. Carson, professor of New Testament at the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and the author of several books, including (interestingly enough) one entitled Exegetical Fallacies.
The full quote, which Dr. Carson ascribes to his father, a Canadian minister, was "A text without a context is a pretext for a proof text."
A "proof text" was originally a neutral term for the scriptural text that proved (or was seen to prove) a particular doctrine. However, the overuse and even abuse of proof texts (i.e., Quoting Out of Context as an Appeal to Authority) to defend practically any position eventually led to "proof text" taking on a mainly negative―sometimes even pejorative―connotation (Guilt by Association, anyone?).
So, the original quote makes your point even more strongly: a contextomy used as an appeal to authority is usually misleading. Of course, a false premiss does not mean that the conclusion is ipso facto false. We need not commit the Fallacy Fallacy.
Of course, the irony of an incomplete quote in the "Quoting Out of Context" article is itself pretty funny.
- Robert Kofahl, Handy Dandy Evolution Refuter, Chapter 8, Question 4.
- John Reader, "Whatever happened to Zinjanthropus?" New Scientist, March 26, 1981, p. 805.