Last week, I posted about the fallacy that results when someone quotes another person out of context. This week I'm going to write about the Fallacy of Selective Quotation.
One of the things that I've learned as my ability to assess arguments has improved is that the relationship between fallacies and immorality is not always so clear cut. Because some fallacies are hidden in a long chain of abstruse reasoning, they are not always intended to mislead a reader.
Sometimes a person might commit a fallacy and not even know it. This is part of the reason that rational people come together to debate or argue, either through conversation or epistle: aside from persuasion, they want to test the cogency of their own reasoning chains.
Some fallacies, on the other hand, seem obviously immoral. Ad hominem attacks, for example, certainly seem immoral to me. Attacking a person with insults instead of criticizing his argument just seems wrong, doesn't it?
In a similar vein, I think that most people immediately recognize that selectively quoting a person's words in a fashion that is disingenuous or deceptive is immoral. Part of this recognition, I imagine, is the indignation we all have presumably felt when our own words have been bowdlerized and abridged to convey false meanings to another party. In other words, we know how frustrating it is to have our language and our beliefs misrepresented. This frustration makes us sympathetic to other victims of misrepresentation, especially misrepresentation of an egregious variety.
To take an example, let's look at the following hypothetical:
"Although I grant that hydraulic fracking can be lucrative, in many cases to families that are basically impoverished, and that it can also make plausible the possibility of an energy independent America, which would have hugely beneficial consequences, both geopolitical and economic, I still can't support its widespread implementation. There are simply too many environmental risks, in particular the risk of groundwater pollution."
Suppose this paragraph comes from a highly respected geologist. Now suppose, an advocate of hydraulic fracking reasons in the following way to support an argument in favor of hydraulic fracking.
"Even world famous geology scholars support the increased use of hydraulic fracking in America. In fact, one of the most respected geology scholars in the world published an article recently that confirmed the 'lucrative' benefits of it. This same geologist went on to claim that widespread increase in '[hydraulic fracking] can make plausible the possibility of an energy independent America' and that '[an energy independent] America would have hugely beneficial consequences, both geopolitical and economic.' These are not my words but the words of a world famous geologist. I think I can rest my case here. Increasing hydraulic fracking is a policy that Americans should support."
Notice how the statement "I still can't support its widespread implementation" got omitted from the advocate's argument?
Since he quoted from other sections of the geologist's statement, the advocate would have known that the geologist ultimately stands against the policy of increasing the amount of hydraulic fracking. Why does he selectively use the geologist's words?
Obviously, he wants to make his argument stronger by using the geologist's authority.
However, his selective use of quotation is certainly fallacious and probably immoral.
When you quote another person, part of what you are doing is representing their beliefs. In the example above, the geologist believes that the environmental risks of increasing hydraulic fracking outweigh the economic and geopolitical benefits of it.
Yet the advocate quoting the geologist gives readers the opposite impression.
It is a form of contemptible deception.
We must avoid such tactics.
Indeed, logic, to say nothing of morality, demands that we do so.