What Are the Dangers of Quote Mining?

Quote mining (or proof-texting) leaves out crucial details, misrepresenting the quote and hurting your Christian witness.

by Steve Golden on March 1, 2017; last featured November 28, 2021
Featured in Answers Magazine
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The Bible teaches atheism. That’s right; Psalm 14:1 says, “There is no God.” Convinced? Probably not, because you know there must be a context. The rest of the verse reads, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” In fact, you might be a little upset if someone twisted the Bible like this. But do Christians ever do this?

Unfortunately, yes, we do.

Consider this quote from a letter by Charles Darwin. “The impossibility of conceiving that this grand and wondrous universe, with our conscious selves, arose through chance, seems to me the chief argument for the existence of God.” Christians have actually quoted this to show that Darwin believed it seemed impossible for chance to produce the universe.

But as you should have guessed, given that Darwin is the father of evolution, this isn’t a reasonable conclusion. The rest of the paragraph was left out, and the end of the sentence says, “but whether this is an argument of real value, I have never been able to decide.” Darwin doubted this argument for God’s existence, not his own belief in evolution.

Quote mining, contextomy, proof-texting—these terms refer to the practice of quoting out of context. Quote mining means fudging facts or leaving out crucial details that misrepresent the meaning of the quote, often to make your own argument appear compelling.

Quote mining is so common in our culture that we may even take it for granted. Remember the last advertisement for a Hollywood flick that included just three words? “A thrilling adventure!” What if the rest of the review was very negative?

To put it bluntly, quote mining is a version of lying. It occurs far too often in theology, politics, and even the debate about evolution. Sometimes it may be unintentional, as when we quote someone who quotes someone else. But we should not be too ready to believe a damaging quote is accurate just because it comes from an opponent.

Sadly, misquoting evolutionary scientists (often by Christian nonscientists) happens often enough that one evolutionist remarked, “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.”

The lesson is clear. Misquoting Charles Darwin won’t convince a skeptic, but it may damage your Christian witness. So if a quote seems too good to be true, investigate.

Evolution’s shortcomings are crippling, and careful, accurate arguments will expose them. We don’t need to resort to cheap shots or quote mining. “Do unto others what you would have others do unto you” is still our motto, as Christ’s followers!

Steve Golden holds an MA in English from Emporia State University.

Answers Magazine

March–April 2017

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