Distorting Quotes

| Science Denialist Tactics |

distorting quotes

Different forms of pseudoscience are not based on scientific reasoning and evidence. Instead, they are the imposters of science. They try to superficially mimic the appearance of science, but lack any of its contents.

One way that pseudoscience activists try to accomplish this involves deceptively manipulating and distorting quotes in different ways. The most common method is quoting a scientist out of context. This often creates the illusion that the researcher is saying the exact opposite of what they are actually claiming.

What is a quote and why use it?

A quote is a section of text that has been written by someone else. There are several reasons why someone would want to include quotes in their own texts. For instance, it can be material from an important source document, such as a court ruling or a historical text. It could also be included because the text itself is responding to what someone else claimed before. Then it is a good idea to include important parts of the original text that one is responding to.

Someone else might have phrased something in such a high-quality way that it is worth mentioning. It could be hilarious humor, sharp intellect or other content worthy of being cited in full. Using quotes could also be used to give proper credit to the person who came up with an idea or conclusion being discussed.

In other words, there are many reasons for why a writer would want to quote someone else. But how can you quote honestly and accurately? How do you avoid distorting quotes to create a misleading impression of what is actually stated?

How to avoid distorting quotes?

There are three major ways to voice what someone else has said in your own writings. First, the content can be paraphrased. This means summarizing what someone else has said in a way that is fair and accurately reflect what was said in the original source. Second, the content can be quoted inside running text. This is typically done if the text being quoted is brief. Third, larger pieces of text can be quoted in a block quote. A block quote is a quote that stands out from the main text in a larger paragraph (often with indention on both sides).

It is crucial to mark the content that is being cited with quotation marks and citing the source for the quote. Citing the source is also vital for when paraphrasing what other people have written. This gives credit and allows transparency. The paraphrased summary or the quote should accurately reflect the views of the author and the larger context of the document being cited. Breaking any of these rules is deceptive and may be considered plagiarism or academic misconduct.

How are science denialists distorting quotes?

There are four major methods that science denialists can deploy when distorting quotes.

Faking entire quotes involves inventing entire quotes out of thin air. Misquoting involves changing the specific content of a quote. Taking individual sentences out of context can make it look like the author is saying something completely different than what they are really claiming. Butchering quotes involves taking out uncomfortable parts of a sentence and replacing it with ellipses in a misleading way.

However, there are many other ways that science denialists use when distorting quotes. They can take real quotes that have been said by someone and falsely attribute it to someone else. They can take very old quotes and try to pass them off as recent. They can pretend that someone who made a quote is an expert in an area where the person has no real expertise.

In some cases, they use hybrid strategies that involve more than one distortion method. There is almost no end to the creativity used by science denialists to distort quotes to fit their anti-science ideology. Thus, it is vital to look up the original source for any quote that science denialists put forward to support their claim.

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Faking entire quotes

Some science denialists invent quotes from scratch. They have never been said by the person who it is attributed to. Most of the time, the quote does not even make sense coming from that person. They are typically invented in such a way as to provoke certain feelings in the readers head. This can include disgust, fear or schadenfreude.

Example (faked quote):

Sir John Houghton, a former atmospheric physics at the University of Oxford, was one of the chairpersons of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and lead editor of the early IPCC reports. Climate deniers claim that he wrote the following in his 1994 book Global Warming: The Complete Briefing:

Unless we announce disasters, no one will listen.

In reality, the quote does not appear in that book and does not appear in anything written by Houghton. It is an entirely fabricated quote. In fact, Houghton explains that this is exactly the opposite of what he believes:

It’s not the sort of thing I would ever say. It’s quite the opposite of what I think and it pains me to see this quote being used repeatedly in this way. I would never say we should hype up the risk of climate disasters in order to get noticed.

In other words, it is an entirely invented quote where the person the quote is attributed to holds the opposing viewpoint.

While this is the boldest method that science denialists use when distorting quotes, it is also the easiest to counter. Just follow the citations back to the original source. If there is no source, the quote is probably fake.


Not all quotes are accurately written by the person using the quote. The content can be changed or otherwise manipulated in deceptive ways. Things can be removed, added or altered. This requires some degree of intention on the part of the person fabricating the quote since it involves active manipulation.

Misquotations can also involve turning inaccurate paraphrasing into a misquotation. These methods of distorting quotes typically start with someone who has an ideological axe to grind. This person paraphrases the quote in a biased way and not an accurate reflection of what the text is trying to say. This paraphrasing statement itself becomes wildly spread around in many places. Soon, many people think that this inaccurate statement is itself a quotation. In reality, it is a biased rephrasing that has gone viral.

Example (inaccurate paraphrasing turned into a misquotation):

Anti-vaccine activists have a special level of hatred for pediatrician and vaccine researcher Paul Offit. He co-invented a safe and effective rotavirus vaccine that has saved the lives of countless thousands of children every year. Offit has collaborated with many other doctors and researchers to write a number of primers that addresses parent’s concerns about vaccines.

In one such article, called “Addressing Parents’ Concerns: Do Multiple Vaccines Overwhelm or Weaken the Infant’s Immune System?”, Offit and colleagues explain that the immunological burden of a single bacterium is larger than all vaccines given together. They even calculate the theoretical maximum number of vaccines an infant could respond to at any given time to give an idea of the enormous diversity of the human immune response:

A more practical way to determine the diversity of the immune response would be to estimate the number of vaccines to which a child could respond at one time. If we assume that 1) approximately 10 ng/mL of antibody is likely to be an effective concentration of antibody per epitope (an immunologically distinct region of a protein or polysaccharide), 2) generation of 10 ng/mL requires approximately 103 B-cells per mL, 3) a single B-cell clone takes about 1 week to reach the 103 progeny B-cells required to secrete 10 ng/mL of antibody39 (therefore, vaccine-epitope-specific immune responses found about 1 week after immunization can be generated initially from a single B-cell clone per mL), 4) each vaccine contains approximately 100 antigens and 10 epitopes per antigen (ie, 103 epitopes), and 5) approximately 107 B cells are present per mL of circulating blood, then each infant would have the theoretical capacity to respond to about 10 000 vaccines at any one time (obtained by dividing 107 B cells per mL by 103 epitopes per vaccine).

Anti-vaccine activists attempt to paraphrase this argument, but they do so in a deceptive way to make it look like Offit is claiming that you can literally (instead of a theoretical argument illustrating the diversity of the human immune system):

A baby’s immune system could handle as many as 10 000 vaccines.

Thus, anti-vaccine activists try to make it seem as if Offit believes clearly absurd things in an effort to dismiss his efforts at vaccine development and education. Obviously, merely the water in 10 000 vaccines would be larger than the body mass of most infants.

Quoting out of context

The most common method for distorting quotes involves taking the quote out of context (contextomy). This involves starting with a larger body of text that says one thing. Then, the science denialist lifts a single or a few sentences out of this larger context and presented in isolation. The sentences are selected in such a way that they appear to say something very different in isolation.

This is especially common when it comes to scientific books and articles because these often develop unscientific rhetorical narratives that are later answered with scientific reasoning and observable facts. Taking these rhetorical narratives out of context can make it appear as if the author themselves hold it, rather than describing it in order to refute it.

Debunking Denialism has exposed science denialists distorting quotes by taking them out of context many times. This includes anti-psychiatry activists on the grandfather of ADHD, creationists on Stephen Hawking and the expansion rate of the universe and Holocaust deniers on historians like Raul Hilberg and Arno Mayer.

Example (quoting out of context):

Creationists love to quote Charles Darwin out of context. They view historical texts, rather than empirical evidence, as authority. Thus, if they can make it appear as if Darwin said something, creationists think they can undermine evolution as a scientific research field. One of the most common passages that creationists quote out of context is a section from On the Origin of Species where Darwin discusses alleged organs of extreme perfection, such as the human eye. Here is the quote after it has been taken out of context:

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.

Superficially, it looks like Darwin is claiming that the idea that the human eye evolved is absurd. In reality, Darwin has merely explained an intuitive objection to his scientific model, which he then proceeds to refute at some length:

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.

This section comes from Chapter VI called “Difficulties on theory”. The quote can be found on pages 186-187 in the Harvard University Press facsimile of the first edition with an introduction by Ernst Mayr (originally from 1964; 18th printing from 2003). It can also easily be found on any of the online repositories of the writings of Darwin, such as The Complete Work of Charles Darwin online.

Distorting quotes by taking them out of context is very, very common. This is probably by far the most common method used by pseudoscience activists when they are distorting quotes to prop up their ideology.

Butchered quotes

Butchered quotes involve taking out crucial parts of a quote and replacing it with ellipses like (..), …, or […] in a way that distorts the meaning of the sentence. It is sometimes appropriate to use ellipses. For instance, a genuine scholar can use it to quoting a less relevant dependent clause. A dependent clause is a clause that provides additional information, but will not form a complete sentence if it stands on its own.

However, science denialists often remove vital parts of a quote and replace it with ellipses to hide it from their readers. The most deceptive way to distort a quote with this method involves turning the quote from saying one thing into a butchered quote that seems to say the exact opposite thing. Typically this takes a quote from a scientific paper or book and butchers it into looking like it is supporting some pseudoscientific belief.

Example (butchered quote abusing ellipses):

A legitimate controversy in evolution a couple of decades ago was a discussion between the relative merits of phyletic gradualism (formation of new species are often slow, gradual and more uniform) and punctuated equilibrium. It is a difficult controversy to explain, but it related to the tempo and mode of evolution. Proponents of punctuated equilibrium thought that the fossil record is characterized by larger stretches of time where very few evolutionary changes occurred with relatively shorter periods of considerable evolutionary change. This was supported by fossil evidence showing relatively rapid changes (on the geological timescale). In other words, it was not a desperate attempt to explain away lack of change in the fossil record. It is not a debate about if evolution has happened, but how it has happened.

Typically, creationists quote proponents of punctuated equilibrium (often Stephen Jay Gould or Niles Eldredge) in a misleading way to make it look like they were attacking evolution. In reality, they were merely discussing the tempo of evolution. Another paleontologist whose words are often distorted by creationists is Steven Stanley. Here is a quote from his book The New Evolutionary Timetable from 1981 about evolution of whales where creationists use ellipses a total of four times (!):

“Given a simple little rodent like animal as our starting point, what does it mean to form a bat in less than ten million years, or a whale in little more time … If an average chronospecies lasts nearly a million years … then we have only ten or fifteen chronospecies to align, end-to-end, to form a continuous lineage connecting our primitive little mammal with a bat or a whale. This is clearly preposterous … A chain of ten or fifteen of these might move us from one small rodent like form to a slightly different one … but not to a bat or a whale!”

Just by looking at this quote, you just know that it is going to be deceptively distorted. It superficially looks like Stanley is criticizing punctuated equilibrium. Why would a paleontologist (who defends punctuated equilibrium) writing a book on evolution claim that punctuated equilibrium is not a credible explanation for some forms of evolutionary change? Turns out that he has not.

Reading the quote without the ellipses shows that he is really offering a challenge to proponents of phyletic gradualism and arguing for the merits of punctuated equilibrium (sections butchered marked in bold).

When the mammals inherited the Earth, the result was spectacular. Their great adaptive radiation was recent enough that the fossil evidence for it is impressive. Within perhaps twelve million years, most of the living orders of mammals were in existence, all having descended from simple, diminutive animals that might be thought of as resembling small rodents, though not all possessed front teeth specialized for gnawing. Among the nearly twenty new orders were the one that contains large carnivorous animals, including modern lions, wolves, and bears; the one that comprises horses and rhinos; and the one that includes deer, pigs, antelopes, and sheep. Most of the orders evolved in even less than twelve million years. Perhaps the most spectacular origins were of the bats, which took to the air, and the whales, which invaded the sea.

Darwin was spared a confrontation with the extraordinarily rapid origins of modern groups of mammals. He knew that the history of mammals extended back to the early part of the Mesozoic, but the record was not well enough studied in his day for him to recognize that the adaptive radiation of modern mammals did not commence until the start of the Cenozoic. Today, our more detailed knowledge of fossil mammals lays another knotty problem at the feet of gradualism. Given a simple little rodent-like animal as a starting point, what does it mean to form a bat in less than ten million years, or a whale in little more time? We can approach this question by measuring how long species of mammals have persisted in geological time. The results are striking; we can now show that fossil mammal populations assigned to a particular Cenozoic lineage typically span the better part of a million years without displaying sufficient net change to be recognized as a new species.

The preceding observations permit us to engage in another thought experiment. Let us suppose that we wish, hypothetically, to form a bat or a whale without invoking change by rapid branching. In other words, we want to see what happens when we restrict evolution to the process of gradual transformation of established species. If an average chronospecies lasts nearly a million years, or even longer, and we have at our disposal only ten million years, then we have only ten or fifteen chronospecies to align, end-to-end, to form a continuous lineage connecting our primitive little mammal with a bat or a whale. This is clearly preposterous. Chronospecies, by definition, grade into each other, and each one encompasses very little change. A chain of ten or fifteen of these might move us from one small rodent-like form to a slightly different one, perhaps representing a new genus, but not to a bat or a whale!

What the gradualist must then postulate is an extraordinary acceleration of evolution within established species. In other words, he must claim that, in the lineage leading to the first bat or whale, chronospecies were actually of very short duration. This situation brings us to the essence of the gradualistic dilemma – a dilemma that holds for the adaptive radiations of Cambrian marine life and Cretaceous flowering plants as well. The first problem is that we have absolutely no fossil evidence for rapid transformation of chronospecies. On the contrary, early Cenozoic species of mammals appear to have had long durations, resembling those of younger species. The second problem relates not to fossil evidence, but to causal explanation. Why should well-established species suddenly undergo very rapid transformation? We know that after the demise of the dinosaurs the world was available for occupancy by mammals. Nonetheless, why should mere ecological opportunity cause any well-established species to abandon its way of life for an entirely new one? We might expect a broadening of the original way of life – of the niche, in the parlance of ecology–but not a desertion of what worked well before. Expanded ecological opportunity would be expected to permit great diversification, but no single species ever becomes very highly diversified. Rather, diversification proceeds by the sprouting off of new species from already established species – by adaptive radiation – and this, of course, brings us to the punctuational scheme of evolution.

Thus, creationists have taken a larger section of text that argues in favor of punctuated equilibrium and against phyletic gradualism and made it appear as if it is arguing against punctuated equilibrium. This is not only a butchered quote, but also a quote taken out of context. This further highlights how many pseudoscience activists use multiple methods for distorting quotes.

Other methods used for distorting quotes

There are more ways to distort quotes than faking an entire quote, inaccurate paraphrasing and quoting someone out of context. Although these are by far the most common, there are many other methods that science denialists use in isolation or in combination with other methods.

False attribution

Some quotes are real. Someone has actually said what was quoted. However, proponents of pseudoscience and quackery may attribute it to the wrong person. Typically, it is a quote said by someone who supports whatever nonsense is being pushed, but it is attributed to someone who appears to have authority and be credible on the subject. In other versions of this method, a researcher who is an expert in an unrelated field is being portrayed as having expertise in the field currently being discussed. In other words, science denialists are misrepresenting the author of the quote.

Outdated quotes

Some quotes come from texts written a very long time ago. This can contain outdated information that is no longer relevant. This can be a way of distorting quotes if the person pushing such a quote is aware of the fact that the quote is severely outdated. In this case, the context is not the surrounding sentences. Rather, the context is the time period in which the quote was originally written.

Some creationists quote biologists from the late 1800s or just before the discovery of the DNA double helix. While interesting for understanding the growth of biological thought, those quotes have virtually relevance for modern science. This is because their concerns have very likely already been addressed by research.

Some anti-psychiatry activists quote psychiatrists from the 1960s or the 1980s to give the misleading impression that there is no evidence for the involvement of biological factors in the development of psychiatric conditions. In reality, modern genetic research has found ample evidence of the biological underpinnings of mental illness.

Exploiting difference between scientific and common language

Some words exist in everyday language and also as highly technical scientific terms. Examples include words like “theory”, “energy”, “chemical”, “momentum”, “Darwinism” and so on. This method can also exist in a broader, more diffuse form. Scientists and laypeople can have a different framework or background for understanding and interpreting certain statement and they make different assumptions from the same general text. For instance, “random” can mean “without forethought”, “without goal”, “without bias” and “anything can happen” depending on the specific situation. People who engage in distorting quotes can abuse this knowledge rift between scientists and laypeople.

How to expose people who engage in distorting quotes?

Distorting quotes is bad. It is an abuse of the scientific literature. It is a way to con unsuspecting people into believing things that are not accurate. It is sometimes hard to know if people who are distorting quotes do it intentionally with full knowledge of the fact that their actions are deceptive. Perhaps some cases where they engage in distorting quotes is an honest mistake or simply a result of wishful thinking.

In the end, the precise intention does not matter. All they are doing is pushing around misinformation by distorting quotes, even if they had innocent intentions. Here is a brief list of methods that one can use to combat people who engage in distorting quotes.

Does the quote exist?

Find out if the quote actually exist. Look for a credible citation. Sometimes, the source for the quote is not provided. Instead, the quote is copy/pasted from other websites or book. Go to that secondary source to try to find the original source. Consider using a search engine to find more information about where the quote has originally has come from.

Is the quote even relevant?

Is the quote from an outdated source? From someone who is not a relevant expert in the topic being discussed? Is the claim being made actually true or based on research that has been overturned? Is the author correctly characterized by the person who cited the quote?

Is the quote accurately copied?

Make sure that no alterations has been made to the quite itself. Does it look exactly identical as the corresponding piece of text in the source?

Is the language of the quote being misrepresented?

Does the person pushing the quote use the terminology found in the quote in the same way? Does the pseudoscience interpretation rely on common misunderstandings of scientific terminology that has an everyday definition and a slightly different technical definition? Does the person pushing the quote have an incorrect interpretation or assumption?

Is the quote taken out of context?

Read the text before and after the text that has been quoted? Does it change the entire meaning of the quote that was cited? This is, by far, the most common way of distorting quotes.


Never automatically trust pseudoscience activists who quote an alleged scientist in a way that superficially appears to confirm their position. It is very likely that they have distorted that quote to fit their worldview. Make sure you ask for a source and check the original text. This is necessary to make sure that the quote exists, has been copied correctly and not taken out of context.

Also keep in mind that even honest citations could be a form of cherry-picking where single scientists who reject mainstream scientific positions are portrayed as scientific authorities.

Be skeptical of all quotes.

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