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Ray Comfort: Quote Miner Extraordinaire

Mining EquipmentI know I've written about Ray Comfort several times before (here, here, and here), and for a blog with as little output as mine, that represents a good percentage of my entries, but I swear I don't purposely go looking for Comfort's antics. However, I recently read a comment on Pharyngula about Comfort, that seemed so outlandish, I had to verify it for myself. And sure enough, it was true. Here's the post in question, for anyone that ones to see the full entry (warning - the comments section will draw you in like a train wreck; you want to look away, but can't, because you want to see what's going to come up next). Anyway, here's the relevant excerpt, where Comfort's discussing his upcoming book, Evolution A Fairy Tale for Grownups:

I have never claimed to be an authority on the subject of evolution, but I have quoted authorities. Lots of them. The publication is filled with quotes from the mouths of evolution experts who admit that they have nothing. They have no empirical evidence for the theory.

No doubt you will accuse me of "quote mining" (for those who don't know what that is, it's the practice of taking a quote--often out of its context, and using it in a way that was never intended by the author). However, every gold nugget is legitimately mined out of its context. No one seriously values the earth that encases the gold. So, when I uncover an evolutionary expert quietly admitting that he has no evidence to back up his theory, I don’t see any value in the soil of his surrounding words. I merely extract what I believe is of value for those who want to discover the truth about the theory of evolution.

I'm guessing that most of my family, friends and possibly a few other visitors that read this blog, probably don't follow the creationism/science "debate" as much as I do, and so may not have seen many examples of quote mining. Since Comfort's book hasn't even been released, yet, I obviously haven't had a chance to read the quotes he's talking about (and in all honesty, I doubt I'll ever read his book at all, given what I've seen of his previous output), but I've been following this debate for long enough now to have an idea of the way creationists distort people's original meanings when they quote them.

A very common example is to quote a particular sentence by Charles Darwin from On the Origin of Species (ex: Kent Hovind and Answers in Genesis - which also quote mines Gould):

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.

Taken on its own, quoted out of context, this quote seems to indicate that Darwin doubted that natural selection could have produced the eye. However, if you go on to read the rest of the paragraph, it tells a different story.

...absurd in the highest degree. When it was first said that the sun stood still and the world turned round, the common sense of mankind declared the doctrine false; but the old saying of Vox populi, vox Dei, as every philosopher knows, cannot be trusted in science. Reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a simple and imperfect eye to one complex and perfect can be shown to exist, each grade being useful to its possessor, as is certainly the case; if further, the eye ever varies and the variations be inherited, as is likewise certainly the case and if such variations should be useful to any 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, should not be considered as subversive of the theory. How a nerve comes to be sensitive to light, hardly concerns us more than how life itself originated; but I may remark that, as some of the lowest organisms, in which nerves cannot be detected, are capable of perceiving light, it does not seem impossible that certain sensitive elements in their sarcode should become aggregated and developed into nerves, endowed with this special sensibility.

And then, just to be thorough, Darwin followed up with a few pages detailing a hypothetical scenario in which the eye could have evolved, and listing organisms with eyes of differing complexity. (And for those interested, here's a great diagram showing various types of eyes in extant gastropods, from simple light sensitive patches, to full on eyes with lenses. Obviously, since gastropods are in a distinct lineage from ours, that isn't the exact path vertebrate eye evolution followed, but it does show very clearly how complex eyes could have evolved gradually, and answers a common creationist question - what use is half an eye.)

Okay, I realize that example was a bit long, but it shows how quoting out of context can completely misrepresent what a person originally intended. And don't forget that people aren't perfect. Maybe when explaining something, a person chose wording that wasn't as clear as it could have been, perhaps they were guilty of a bit of hyperbole, it's possible they were using a rhetorical device or being sarcastic, or maybe even they just flat out made a mistake. To ignore a person's overall position or argument, and focus solely on cherry-picked statements that seem to contradict that overall position is extremely dishonest.

I tend to give most people the benefit of the doubt. I think most people are sincere in their beliefs, and just trying to live their lives in the best way possible. However, people like Ray Comfort make me start to question that assumption.

Let's just take evolution, as an example. I realize that around half the people in this country are creationists, but I think that the main problem is simply lack of good science education (as evidenced by reports such as the NSF's Science and Engineering Indicators, which indicate that around a quarter of the people in this country don't even know that the Earth orbits the Sun). But Ray Comfort falls into a different category. He's not just Joe Schmoe who's never been exposed to any of the evidence - he's the head of an international ministry. In his prominent position, and with the way he's publicly expressed his doubt of evolution, surely people must have tried to show him some of the evidence in its favor. Actually, just look at some of the comments on his entry that got me started on this whole thing - plenty of people have recommended good books as introductions to evolution, and several comments listed some of the evidence right there. To have so many people show you evidence in favor of evolution, and to still doubt it, well, Comfort can't innocently claim ignorance like so much of the rest of the population.

There's also the subject I blogged about at the beginning of the year - the fake Golden Compass Collectible inserts that his ministry produced (along with a cybersquatting website, goldenconnpass.com). Not only is that a very misleading way to try to spread your message, but as I pointed out at the end of that entry, his ministry offered a bulk discount for buying those inserts. Just think about that. Bulk discounts are usually for profit minded companies, as a way to entice their customers to buy more of their product. I would have thought that a good Christian organization would have been selling its evangelical materials at a rate that covered production costs, and no more. Surely, he's not trying to turn a profit off his congregation.

It seems like so much I hear that comes from Ray Comfort is either extremely ignorant, ill-informed, or dishonest. Even if I still give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he's good intentioned, I still can't understand how some people continue to trust what he has to say.

Update 2008-29-29: Slight changes made since originally posted, but nothing that significantly changes the meaning.


I love Ray Comfort's blog. He's hilarious. I can't wait to read his "book" on evolution. But he won't tell me exactly what kind of research he did. Probably a lot of copying and pasting.

Terry - you have more patience than me if you can stand to read his blog on a regular basis. I couldn't even imagine trying to get through a whole book written by him.

"To have so many people show you evidence in favor of evolution, and to still doubt it, well, Comfort can't innocently claim ignorance like so much of the rest of the population."

Funny you should say this. Cause if judgement day does come you can't claim ignorance either. See this works both ways. Don't say Ray is not doing the same exact thing you are doing. You both have a position you want others to believe. Neither one of you has empirical evidence. You are the secular version of Ray Comfort, although Ray has alot more pull than you. If you dont think anyone should believe what Ray has to say, then why should anyone believe what you have to say?


Thanks for commenting. Obviously, I disagree with what you wrote, but that's what makes for interesting discussions.

Okay, my first point of disagreement is in trying to make this a religious discussion (unless you're referring to my atheism, which isn't exactly relevant to a discussion on evolution, since plenty of Christians accept the evidence, and since I accepted evolution myself while I was still a Christian). As you pointed out, evolution is secular, but don't confuse that with atheistic. Meteorology is also secular in explaining weather without resorting to deities, but people don't automatically assume that the weather man is an atheist, or that meteorologists set out to disprove that angels bowling are the source of thunder.

Many people have different interpretations of the Bible (as well as different interpretations of the scriptures of other religions), and not just on evolution vs. a literal reading of Genesis. Obviously, it's a logical impossibility for all the varying interpretations to be correct, so some people are definitely wrong. There's the famous example of the geocentric interpration that was popular until Copernicus, and there are even still people that interpret the Bible to say that the Earth is flat. In light of all the differing interpretations of the Bible, I'd say that the best bet is to look at the universe around you, and incorporate a little outside knowledge to help determine the best interpretation. In other words, considering how many times people have adjusted their interpretations of scripture in the past, if overwhelming evidence shows that evolution explains the history of life on this planet, then you need to adjust your interpretation of scripture to match with reality.

Moving past that to my biggest disagreement - there is empirical evidence supporting evolution. I've already written A (Somewhat) Brief Introduction to Evolution listing a bit of that evidence (don't miss the link to Ein Sophistry's discussion of molecular evidence for our common ancestry with the other great apes. I recently wrote a review of the book, Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters by Donald Prothero, and included a couple figures from the book showing transitional forms, and another figure showing the homology between birds and non-avian theropod dinosaurs. The website, TalkOrigins.org is full of evidence for evolution. Heck, just last week paleontologists announced a newly discovered fossil from China showing another dinosaur with primitive feathers. There is certainly no lack of evidence for evolution.

Finally, I would definitely disagree with being called "the secular version of Ray Comfort," and being told that we're "doing the same exact thing," especially in regards to this entry. Quote mining is extremely dishonest, and I would never stoop to such levels. And don't forget all the other dishonest tactics Comfort has used that I've described in previous entries.

Aside from that, Comfort ignores the evidence, and to put it frankly, makes some rather silly arguments. My first exposure to Comfort was a CD some guy at a flea market gave us, and which inspired me to start this blog. The one argument that still stands out in my mind is pondering the first tetrapod to come onto land, saying something to the effect of, "Just think about it. The first fish to come up out of the sea to walk on land needed gills to breathe in the sea, but it also needed lungs to breathe on land. If it was a land animal, what was it doing with gills? And if it was a sea animal, what was it doing with lungs?" You don't even need to speculate about our ancestors on that one - hasn't Comfort ever heard of lungfish, bettas, or any of the myriad living fish that breathe air? Then there's his recent line of argument that's so silly that it's tough to imagine how he came up with it, that every species must independently evolve male and female members. I kid you not. Here's what he actually wrote, after receiving an explanation from PZ Myers. I'll even include a longer quote than I'd originally intended, because when I went to double check that I was representing his position correctly, I realized it was something you'd have to see to actually believe.

Comfort replied, "I don't have the evident faith the professor has to believe in the theory of evolution, and so I am glad that he took the time to explain his beliefs as to why females had evolved along with males in every species in creation.

"Okay, I've got it," Comfort continued. "Your belief is that species do not arise from single new mutant males that then have to find a corresponding mutant female. So, let's take it slowly for those of us stupid folk who like empirical evidence. We are looking at a contemporary male and a female elephant. They are part of a population of elephants. Let's go back to their elephant ancestors 10,000 years ago. They are still male and female elephants (they had to be because that's how elephants reproduce). Let's now go back one million years to what you called 'the populations of pre-elephants that contained males and females.' Obviously, they are still male and female way back then because that's how pre-elephants reproduced," Comfort said.

"Let's go back even further (100 million years ago) to pre-pre-elephants that also contained males and females. At what point of time in evolutionary history did the female evolve alongside the male? And why did she evolve? Then explain, if you would professor, why horses, giraffes, cattle, zebras, leopards, primates, antelopes, pigs, dogs, sheep, fish, goats, mice, squirrels, whales, chickens, dinosaurs, beavers, cats, human beings and rats also evolved with a female, at some point of time in evolutionary history. Professor, I know you believe, but please, give us who are healthy skeptics some empirical evidence. Remember, stupid people like me want good hard evidence before we, like you, become believers in Darwin's theory," Comfort said.

So, to summarize, evolution is no more or less religious than any other scientific explanation of the universe, I wouldn't consider myself to be like Comfort, and most important, there is plenty of evidence for evolution.

I tried to post a comment at Comfort's Way of the Master YouTube site and my comment wouldn't appear. I haven't had that trouble at YouTube sites before. He has a video that lies about Richard Dawkins' interview with Ben Stein in Expelled. So I wanted to point out that Dawkins wrote about that experience in his online essay "Lying for Jesus." I'm disappointed my comments were blocked. Does anyone know how/if YouTube comments can be blocked at certain sites?

It is a delicate subject when talking about evollution especially when we talk about monkeys, rats and ants. Who can explain why an ant when it is born knows immediately whether it is a drone a worker or a queen. How does it know what work it must do. Has this evolved or is this gods work.

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