Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Contextual Text

Cherry picking I've always called it cherry picking, although my friend Darren calls it quote mining.

Either way, it's the height of laziness when it comes to debate, argument, and research.

I'm sure that every politician has been subjected to his or her words being taken out of context; in fact, that's a common defense when they are caught making a boneheaded remark. I'm sure that most of us have experienced the same thing, when we've had someone throw our own words back at us (usually with an obnoxious "You said--direct quote!--blah di blah blah") and have to tell them that they took that completely out of context.

The truth is that if one is dead set on proving their point to the exclusion of the facts, they will probably be able to find a quote to support their misguided opinion. I love a good quote as much as the next person, and if it is merely a nice turn of phrase or a sentiment with which I agree, I'll simply enjoy the quote for what it is. However, if I'm trying to build a case for my argument, I make sure that I have a broader understanding of the context in which the quote appeared, as well as the person's overarching philosophy.

For example, do you want to make an argument that Einstein felt that religion had a place in science? Sift through some of his writings, and you'll undoubtedly find a quote buried in there that matches your argument. But if you take the time to do a little research, if you have the intellectual capacity to comprehend the bigger picture, you'll find that he believed no such thing, stated repeatedly that he did not believe in a personal god, and in fact found such a concept "childlike." If he had any inclinations toward faith at all, it was the faith that certain physical truths in the universe must hold true; that is the faith that he spoke of scientists having. Conversely, he wrote of people of a religious bent needing to have faith in the unalterable precepts of science, understanding that such concepts are a given. Einstein wrote of faith in facts, not in unknowable entities. He did not argue that such entities are undoubtedly nonexistent or forever unknowable, but believed that scientific research should seek to understand as much as possible, and that as we continue to seek answers, more arcane knowledge of our universe will be revealed.

Quote mining Einstein had plenty of faith...but not in the widely accepted notion of a personal god. He had faith in science, research, and the knowable and measurable forces of our universe. I find Einstein’s writings about science and religion more philosophical than scientific. Being a scientist does not negate philosophy; however, when I discuss such things with those of like mind, our thought processes lean towards factual musings, not magical or unprovable ones.

Cherry picking and quote mining is fine for when you want an inspiring or fun quote to share, passing along pithy wisdom from Paul Harvey or RuPaul; when you are attempting to put forth a coherent argument, unless you take the time to understand the broader meaning behind a person's words, it will probably come back to bite you on the ass. Sifting through quote sites on the Web can result in a big ol' blob of protein on your face. Egg, I mean. Just ask that mavericky Sarah Palin. Better yet, ask her mavericky ghost writer. In her mavericky Going Rogue book, Palin (exaggerated finger quotes) quoted the legendary basketball coach John Wooden (the jury is out on whether or not he's mavericky):

Our land is everything to us... I will tell you one of the things we remember on our land. We remember our grandfathers paid for it--with their lives.

That seems like kind of a strange thing for John Wooden to say, doesn't it? That's because he didn't say it. The actual quote belongs to a Native American activist by the name of John Wooden Legs:

Our land is everything to us. It is the only place in the world where Cheyennes talk the Cheyenne language to each other. It is the only place where Cheyennes remember the same things together. I will tell you one of the things we remember on our land. We remember our grandfathers paid for it--with their life. My people and the Sioux defeated General Custer at the Little Big Horn.

Well, that's completely different, isn't it? In this case, not only did they leave out significant portions of the quote, they didn't even attribute it to the right person.

If you really want to put forth a convincing argument, you probably need to spend a little more time learning about things, rather than lazily stringing together something that merely fits your own narrow minded viewpoint. If you don't, you're liable to have some smartass like me make like Prometheus's liver-picking eagle and pick apart your argument.

Kind of like what just happened here.


  1. Another good post! I hadn't heard that about quote attributed to Wooden. Very interesting and typical!

  2. palin's work reminds me of a badly written high school research paper.


  3. Cherry Picking is when you are too lazy to transition on defense and you hope your teammates grab a rebound and get an outlet pass out to you. You are hoping you can get an eazy shot on the pseudo fast break.

    I 'strip mine' people's thoughts. Sometimes I feel the same way, but they have a way with words that communicates the feeling better.

    Stuff like Palin's book is the new explotation market. Just as gangsta rap became a culture canker for low income blacks, the quasi intellectual ramblings of the racially ignorant is the next 'boom' market.

    Now that white people have legitimate (I mean, I can understand why there is an anger) reasons to be 'mad as hell, and not being willing to take it anymore', they are going to find piss poor excuses to express their anguish.

    That is what I think about 'Gansta Rap' and all that pop garbage. And with folks on 'Faux News' and others like Palin being more than willing to mislead and 'quote mine' things to fit their agenda, I wonder if they really care about their audience or if they are more guilty of intellectual carpetbagging.

    They know that people aren't willing to think for themselves. Who that thinks or agrees with Palin is really going to be put off by the errors in her book and have an epiphany about how little of themselves they have invested into making up their own minds?

    Kind of like how Ted Haggard is selling the 'I am cured of my gayness' stuff everywhere. But I am starting to fully digress, so I will stop here!

  4. Really great post, Beth. Cherry-picking is what keeps me away from most forums. It drives me insane! 20 comments later, the original thought, as interesting as it might have been, is lost to either nitpicking, typo-slamming, or irrelevant pissing contests.

    I love your thoughts about Einstein and religion. What wise words--from both of you.

    Thanks for highlighting the "error" about Wooden and Wooden Legs in Palin's book. That's going to get some traction--I'll make sure of that.

    I really need to stop by here more often!

  5. Ha! Surprised there hasn't been bigger waves about Palin's misquote in her book. When I read the first quote, I kept saying to myself - wrong people and that doesn't sound right. Turns out I was right.

    I couldn't stand the woman before, I detest her even more now. There isn't one native out there that would buy her bull. She's nothing more than diseased riddled blankets and trinkets - Empty promises. (Hugs)Indigo

  6. Maybe they will make a Farside type calendar of Palin quotes some day :o)

  7. Beth, sharp and perceptive, as always. I had a feeling the first quote was Native American, though I didn't know who said it, off the top of my head. I wish most people took the time to understand Einstein properly. The man behind the work was an amazing individual.

  8. beth i nominated you for an award...nothing like howard's but just small thank you for all you do!


  9. I like what Ken said about the calendar. I miss my yearly George Bush Stupid Quotes day-by-day calendar, which the calendar-making people managed to keep publishing for years without running out of dumb or erraneous quotations. I figured a similar Sarah Palin quotes calendar would have been produced by now, and I hope it does eventually happen.

  10. Followed the trail over from Sheria Reid's "The Examined Life" and now, I think I'll stay a spell! Can't find a thing in this post that doesn't light up my synapses and that's what it's all about. You might get a kick out of my "Having A Little Work Done" post on Sarah and George. Oh, and your blog look is gorgeous!


I'm funny how, I mean funny like I'm a clown, I amuse you?