March 21, 2008

Quote Mining

"Quote mining" is the practice of searching for and using frequently misleading quotes taken from large volumes of literature or speech in a nature that neglects context (see also "proof-texting" and "contextomy").

As the Internet plays a larger role in the finding of information, and information itself seems to increase with impossible rapidity, it might do well to talk about the use of sources both contemporary and historical. This issue has bearing on why I started this blog in the first place. On an LDS message board new discussions appear weekly stating something like this:

TruthSeeker123: I was just doing a little light reading last night and I discovered this interesting quote from Brigham Young...
GodIsOne: While reading my Book of Mormon the other day I saw a cross reference to a disturbing thing Heber C. Kimball said in the Journal of Discourses...
CoolMoeDee: Brigham Young was clearly a total racist! Check out this quote...[1]
Typically, the quotes are taken from seldom-read sources like the Journal of Discourses, Orson Pratt's The Seer, or an early edition of Bruce R. McConkie's Mormon Doctrine. The same 50-or-so quotes often appear strange, shocking, sexist or racist. They seem to be recycled on each anti-Mormon website and in books critical of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Given anti-Mormon's and critic's penchant for citing the Journal of Discourses especially, I determined to read all 26 volumes to discover for myself if these strange quotes were common or obvious, as I hadn't heard them used in Church or seminary. At the outset I also read B.H. Roberts' Comprehensive History of the Church and Leonard Arrington and Davis Bitton's The Mormon Experience, Arrington's Great Basin Kingdom, and other various essays on early church and American history, to provide the JD with some context.

I am currently in volume 4, and have been blogging my favorite selections as I go. I quickly realized the vast amount of time it would take to locate the various quotes used to criticize the Church. I call this work "quote mining." Picture a miner with his hard hat, head lamp, and pickaxe, heading down into a deep mine of rock then emerging with a few golden nuggets. When I began reading the JD I expected to encounter many more "nuggets" than I have thus far. What has stood out to me more are the vast majority of great quotes, in addition to more mundane moments, that quote miners overlook. I am left with the conclusion that most miners have one object in mind: to discredit the Church by finding any strange, salacious, or ill-advised comments and present them as though they represent the "secret truth" behind Mormonism.

Typically, those who cite JD and other rarely-read works have never actually cracked a look at the sources themselves. Instead, they use the same quotes that miners long before chipped away from the bedrock. Quote mining pioneers such as Gerald and Sandra Tanner have provided a nice cache from which new miners can easily pick out a few precious nuggets, presenting them as their own special discoveries. Much effort has gone into culling quotes from the records of the Church, though considerably much less effort is made by those merely searching for "sound bite" criticism and quick accusations. These little quote nuggets are topically listed in rapid succession to shock; isolated quotes with literally thousands of pages between them thought to make a decisive and damning case against Mormonism.

Sometimes, unsuspecting members of the Church are rankled by these golden discoveries. Upon further inspection of the nuggets, however, the quote miner has often emerged with nothing more than iron pyrite. Here's an example of what I mean by quote mining: Suppose you encounter an agnostic or atheist who decries Christianity as violent, oppressive and evil. You may deny this characterization but the opposition has proof: a quote from Jesus Himself. Jesus a militant zealot? Check out this quote, they say, from the so-called "Prince of Peace":
But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven. Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. (Matt. 10:33-34)
Suppose this quote is used over and over again on websites and in books and even coupled with instances of contemporary Christians committing violent acts. Or added to the quote is this juicy tidbit:
Sources close to Jesus say his disciples were constantly toting swords. In a moment of anger and without warning, one of them even sliced off the ear of an innocent man named Malchus in the dark! (see John 18:10).
The quote miner is the critic compiling and presenting data. The mine is the Bible and other sources such as newspapers which may account Christian misbehavior. The nuggets are the verses and instances of violent Christians. Is this an accurate portrayal of the data? Is it a fair representation Jesus and Christianity? Technically, the quote about peace and a sword is lifted straight from the Bible; the data is "true." It appears the disciples did carry swords at times. Simon Peter did cut off the ear of Malchus. Some Christians do commit violent acts. However, I believe overall this portrayal of Christianity disregards too much information; it is irresponsible, lacks context, and is presented to shock. Trying to convince the critic, however, will prove difficult. They feel their evidence is an open and shut case.

Much can be said about "that noble dream" of objectivity in dealing with history (see, for example, That Noble Dream by Peter Novick). While touching only slightly on the notion of objectivity, I would like to approach the topic as an appeal to the concepts of fairness and motive. First, a word about sources.  

Primary Sources
Much of our historical knowledge comes from shadows of the past found in journal entries, personal letters, news accounts, etc. We can search these records, extract what we think are the important or interesting aspects of them, and create a picture of what history might have been like. Primary sources are defined by Historian Mary Lynn Rampolla as "materials produced by people or groups directly involved in the event or topic under consideration" (A Pocket Guide to Writing in History, 2001, 4.) A "modern" view of history believes that the historian merely "discovers" the facts and presents them as they are; the facts "speak for themselves." The historian sheds prejudice and point of view and allows the evidence to tell the story. A "post-modern" view of history holds that one cannot be truly purged of all values and prejudices; sources and evidence pass through filters of our own understanding, and that different and valid interpretations can emerge from the exact same data. A post-modern view in some way allows for other interpretations. How should primary sources like the JD or statements from early Christian fathers be presented?  

Using Sources
In presenting primary sources, selection must be made. One obviously cannot present all 26 volumes of the JD in order to explain Brigham Young's feelings on irrigation, for example; some selection is required. One would have to read and discover instances within the volumes where Brigham mentions irrigation to provide specific examples. This can be a time consuming endeavor. However, it is only fair to make an attempt to discover as much information about a source as possible before trying to use it as evidence to establish a case. There are many different methods of analyzing, understanding, or presenting sources responsibly. One method I discovered is represented by the acronym "PAPER." The creator of the acronym stated:
Reading primary sources requires that you use your historical imagination. This process is all about your willingness and ability to ask questions of the material, imagine possible answers, and explain your reasoning.[2]
One method is called the "6 C's" which are said to give a reader a "guided tour" of primary sources:

  • Content: -What is the main idea? -For documents, list important points/phrases/words/sentences. -For images, describe what you see.
  • Citation: -Who created this and when? -What type of source is it?
  • Communication: -What is the author’s bias or point of view? -Who is the intended audience? -Why was the source created? -What is the tone of the document or image?
  • Context: -What is going on in the world, country, region, or locality when this was created? -What other sources (primary or secondary) might help provide answers to this question? -What else do we need to know to better understand the evidence in this source?
  • Connections: -How does this connect to what you already know?
  • Conclusions: -What contributions does this make to our understanding of history? -How did you come to these conclusions? -How does this document help answer your initial, essential, or research question?[3]
Using methods like these can help overcome some of the weaknesses in interpreting or citing sources. It should be added that "secondary sources" are also often used by writers. These are sources written by second-hand people, or sources which restate primary sources, such as newspaper reports or history books quoting a primary source, or even this blog, which uses quotations from the JD, etc. Primary sources are more desirable in most cases because they have not passed through the "interpretive lens" of a reader before being presented. In all cases, the sources should be analyzed to prevent misquotation or misrepresentation. Either kind of source can be skewed based on how a reader presents a source.

Presenting sources involves understanding differences between"fact" and "interpretation." In other words, a document might say:
I went to the Barbershop at noon, Thursday, March 21 and the Barber, Mr. Jones, was quite rude.
We can try to establish the "facts": that the document was written by the person in question, whether there is evidence that a barbershop existed or that the writer was there on the specified day, etc. But we still have to make a judgment based on faith in many regards when dealing with the source. Was the source reliable? Was there a reason they might have been mistaken about the date or anything else? Does the account agree with other accounts? Was the Barber really rude? How? etc. Other questions ought to be asked. Who wrote the account? Is it a firsthand report? How long after the occurrence was it written? For what purpose? and more. This is because a source generally represents one person's view on any given event.[4]  

Using Sources on this Message Board
One rule of the LDS message board on which I often post is the "CFR," or "call for references" rule. If someone claims that "Brigham Young said such-and-such," they are required (when asked) to provide documentation of the source. If this is not provided, the statement must be withdrawn. Transparency in motive is also important when one desires to be viewed as credible when posting quotes online (though transparency is not necessarily regarded as neccessary in professionally published works.) Quote miners "discover" quotes and sometimes present them in "innocent" ways. It is better to be clear about your reason for using a source, where you discovered it, and what you believe the source indicates. For example: my JD blog is transparently dedicated to provide uplifting, interesting, and more "faith-promoting" information from the JD than it is to dissecting the more strange selections, though I do discuss those as well. I provide detailed information on all the sources I use.  

My purpose in this post is to establish the background for my argument against quote mining. I have directed much of my words to quote-mining critics of the Church, but the same thoughts ought to be considered by members of the Church and any others who use sources for whatever reason, whether it be in preparing a talk or Sunday school lesson, or arguing about politics, or whatever. When I use sources here I try to make an honest effort to research and understand them before using them to try to prove a point. I try to present them in their proper context as well as applying them to my outlook in the present. Nephi encouraged us to "liken all scriptures unto us" (1 Nephi 19:23), but this shouldn't be a license to use any point of view from any time period without at least footnoting more about the context of the source. Additionally, I always provide citations when possible. As I note at the bottom of this blog, the views I express are my own and do not represent official doctrine of the Church in and of themselves, though I believe I often cite "official doctrine." I encourage readers to learn more about this topic; the News Room commentary section has many valuable and recent statements on this subject. See, for example, "Approaching Mormon Doctrine" and "Positioning Church Doctrine: How Mormons See Themselves."

In closing, I offer a quote from Brigham Young. He was aware that newspapers in the eastern part of the United States had been printing articles regarding Brigham Young as an unruly tyrant, unwilling to concede power to the authority of the United States. Some of his comments could be construed to indicate such, but Brigham understood some of the implications of his words:
In my conversation, I shall talk and act as I please. Still I am always aware, when speaking in public, that there are those present who are disposed to find fault with this people, and to try to raise a prejudice against them; and they will pick up isolated words and sentences, and put them together to suit themselves, and send forth a garbled version to prejudice the world against us.
Such a course I never care anything about; for I have frequently said, spoken words are but wind, and when they are spoken are gone; consequently I take liberties in speaking which I do not allow when I commit my sentiments to writing (JD 2:179).
Spoken words may be like "wind," but they can blow around for years to come.  


Ironically, one such poster on the message board used the screen name "fourty-niner." 

  • Purpose of the author in preparing the document
  • Argument and strategy she or he uses to achieve those goals
  • Presuppositions and values (in the text, and our own)
  • Epistemology (evaluating truth content)
  • Relate to other texts (compare and contrast)
For more specifics on using this approach, see "How to Read a Primary Source," Reading, Writing, and Researching for History: A Guide for College Students, Patrick Rael. 
See "Primary Source Analysis and the 6 C’s," Teaching American History Summer Program 2007, The UC Irvine History Project. This article was specifically dealing with visual sources such as art. 

For more, see "Reading and Writing about Primary Sources," History Writing Resource Center, The College of William and Mary.

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