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Now I am a skeptic

by Phil Plait, Jan 13 2010

I’ve been a skeptic a long time, maybe 25 years or more now. It didn’t happen all at once, though there have been sudden world-shift moments for me. I’ve been an active skeptic — outspoken, that is, willing to talk about this stuff — for about 10 years now.

But now, finally, I feel that I have arrived at the Holy Grail of skepticism: a goofball antiscience promoter has quote mined me.

Quote mining is a tradition among the antireality crowd: they find something a scientist has said, and then leave out certain words, or edit out the context, making it look like the quote is the opposite of what the actual intention was. Creationists are notorious for this, but others do it as well.

On a bulletin board site called Christian Forums, there is a user who goes by the name "Agonaces of Susa", and this person has the usual antiscience CV stocked with creationism and such, but also, apparently, is a supporter of Velikovsky’s ridiculous and long-ago-debunked claims about astronomy.

For those of you who are happily unaware, Immanuel Velikovsky wrote a series of books decades ago saying that the events in the Bible were literally true, and caused by various astronomical things like planets careening around the solar system like billiard balls, interacting in impossible ways, and doing many impossible things. He’d have been better off just saying those were all miracles of God, but still, a lot of people swallowed his nonsense whole. It’s mostly dead now, with just a few reality-denying holdouts. I wrote a chapter in my first book, Bad Astronomy, dealing with the Velikovsky affair.

In this post on the forums, AoS says this little gem:

You trust the pseudoscientist Phil Plait that, these are his words, “Magnetism is…a joke in astronomy”?

Wow! That makes it seem like astronomers are idiots, doesn’t it? As if we don’t believe in magnetism at all, and that we think it has no role in astrophysics. But wait! Look at what he wrote. It has the magic wand of quote mining pseudoscience: the ellipsis! That means he left something out of what I said. And so what was it he left out?

Magnetism is a very important topic in astrophysics (despite some pseudoscientists lying and saying this force is ignored), but it’s not well-understood. It’s fiendishly complex, so much so that it’s a joke in astronomy: when giving a colloquium about an astronomical object’s weird features, saying it’s due to magnetism will always get a chuckle out of an audience. And it’s a standard joke that if you want to derail a talk, ask the speaker about the effects of magnetism. In three dimensions, magnetism is ferociously difficult to model.

I bolded the part that was quote mined, and as you can see, AoS completely took out of context what I was saying. He also misinterprets what I said about Velikovsky. While I did say that Velikovsky was wrong about everything, I meant that he was wrong about his science. Sure, he said Venus would be hot, but the reason he said it would be hot was completely wrong (Velikovsky claimed it was ejected whole from Jupiter, which is about the wrongest wrong you can ever wrongly wrongify). Even if you drop a shotgun you might have one pellet hit the target, but that ain’t skill.

That thread on the forum goes on and on, and AoS is joined by others who appear to willfully misunderstand what I’m saying, or at least pick and choose from what I’ve said to make it look like I’m wrong. That might work for the flock (or the Simpsons), but the rest of the world sees right through them.

But will these people listen? Of course not! Because this is their arguing tactic:


Still, it’s an honor to have been quote mined. Thank you, gentlemen, for reminding me just why I fight this fight every single day.

24 Responses to “Now I am a skeptic”

  1. Lone Wolf says:

    These idiots have no shame. I guess its like the old saying “don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story” or for them it’s “Don’t let the truth or what people actually said get in the way of a crappy pseudoscience”.
    It shows how bad these people are when they use such dishonest tactics.

  2. It’s like those movie blurbs that say “This movie couldn’t be . . . better!” but if you find the review, it actually said, “This movie couldn’t be worse. Watching paint dry would be a better use of your time.”

  3. PaleGreenPantsWithNobodyInsideThem says:

    Aren’t we special now…Mr. Skeptic. I bet you feel real proud, don’t you?

    /Jealousy is rife within my sole.

  4. revjagow says:

    Being a person of faith, I’m not likely to sign on to your crusade anytime soon. But I agree wholeheartedly with your post. Everyone should be opposed to quote mining, poor logic and juvenile argumentation. Ideas cannot really be exchanged if there are not some rules of fairness that are agreed to from the outset.

  5. Dax says:

    Aha, got you… you just admitted that astronomers are idiots:

    “[A]stronomers are idiots … we don’t believe in magnetism at all, and … we think it has no role in astrophysics”

    So, Mr. Skeptic, I’ve just proven that you and your scientist friends are all idiots by conveniently quote mining your own words. Ha! Since you are all idiots, all astronomy is thus false and therefore the default true answer is my special theory of the milky way which states that stars are unicorn tears!

    • stargazer9915 says:

      No, stars are REALLY drippings of sauce off of the appendages of the great “Flying Spaghetti Monster. Really. Look it up in your pastafarian bible. Even the famous astronomer Phil Plait will tell all this is true.

  6. I guess I thought that the term “quote-mining” was generally used a bit more narrowly than would apply to the situation here, at least colloquially.

  7. Jim Shaver says:

    Yes, skepticat, “quote-mining” is really a misapplied colloquialism for what AoS did in this case. I believe there is a more appropriate colloquial term for it: lying.

  8. Jack Jones says:

    As was mentioned when you first published this blog post at Discover Magazine:

    Velikovsky was wrong in many areas. But Phil needs to get his facts right. (1) Velikovsky never said that the bible was literally true. He did use some of its contents as part of his historical reconstruction in conjunction with comparative mythology. (2) Velikovsky never suggested that the planets “careen around the solar system like billiard balls”. Now I’m doubting whether you’ve ever read any of his books. (3) Velikovsky could not have been wrong about his science, because he presented no science in his book, Worlds in Collision, a historical reconstruction. Velikovsky did say that science could be used to test his ideas, which of course found that a number of his ideas were false.

    Since you misquoted first time around, and are perpetuating the errors yet again, who are you referring to when you say “.. will these people listen? Of course not!”. What do you call a scientists who doesn’t heed their own words?

    • Skeptic of Skeptics with a captial S says:

      The essential thing that anyone can take out of Velikovsky, regardless of what comes of the DETAILS all of his claims is that “DEATH FROM THE SKIES HAPPENS” and that there is such a thing as CATASTROPHIES. That, MR. PLAIT IS YOUR CORE CLAIM in your own literature.

    • Carl says:

      Mr. Jones,

      Are you unable to read English, or are you just doing an overly-subtle parody of Velikovsky believers?

      Phil never said that Velikovsky said that the Bible was literally true. He said that Velikovsky wrote that Biblical miracles were literal. Which V. did in fact write.

      As for “careening around the solar system like billiard balls”, did you really not get that this was a mocking description of Velikovsky’s utterly ludicrous model, in which comets burst out of Jupiter, bounce around for a while, and come to rest as planets? By taking it literally you just sound silly.

      As for the question of whether Worlds in Collision is or is not science–do you really want to assert that it made scientifically testable claims but is somehow nonetheless immune to scientific analysis? Really?

      You haven’t presented a bit of evidence that Phil “misquoted”–for one thing he didn’t quote anyone except AoS, who he quoted accurately. What the heck are you even talking about? It’s AoS who misquoted, sir.

  9. Nayr says:

    “I have been a … goofball antiscience promoter … and … notorious … supporter of Velikovsky’s ridiculous and long-ago-debunked claims about astronomy”.

    Dang Phil!

  10. Neil says:

    I think Darwin has been quote mined more than other human being. It has to be one of the stupidest endeavours anybody can partake in. It is not like people cannot fact check what was actually said. It has been a habit of mine for a long time now to check anything a ceationist quotes a scientist as saying. It really shows nothing less than desperation on the part of the person performing the mining operation. When you have no facts, no evidence, no data, no proofs, you just try and screw up the ones who do. Genuinely sad and only displays intellectual cowardice and intellectual dishonesty.

  11. stargazer9915 says:

    Love the article Phil, but if you are going to post on multiple sites, please try and do it in a timely fashion. Five days is too long to go from 1st post to next. It’s old news for most. Having said that, I really love the Dr.P quote mining from all the commentors.

  12. Beelzebud says:

    “I’ve been a goofball antiscience promoter, maybe 25 years or more now. It didn’t happen all at once, I wrote a chapter in my first book, Bad Astronomy, decades ago saying that the events in the Bible were literally true. But now, finally, I feel that I have arrived at the Holy Grail. But will these people listen? Of course not!”

    I’m amazed at what I’m reading here, Phil. I thought you were one of the good guys!?!

  13. Trimegistus says:

    You’ve hit the big time now!

    Velikovskians are perhaps the dumbest of all crackpots. I recall reading “Worlds in Collision” in a Readers’ Digest Condensed Book edition, at my grandmother’s house when I was about ten. Even that young I knew there was something wrong with the idea of planets spontaneously launching themselves around the Solar System, and the way he equated “hydrocarbons” with “carbohydrates” didn’t sound quite right either.

  14. MadScientist says:

    Ooo … a post to quote mine:

    According to Phil Plait:
    “I’ve been a skeptic a long time — it’s … a … joke!”

  15. Max says:

    This is a big step, but the Holy Grail is a deathbed conversion to woo.

  16. I lol’d :D awesome post.

  17. steelsheen11b says:

    sleaze is as sleaze does since it’s getting harder to con people with “relgion” the woo crowd has sink to even more absurd depth to get the job done.

  18. Michael Horn says:

    Oh thank goodness, lawdy, lawdy, Phil IS alive and well!

    I was sooooo concerned cause when I pointed out that we had the “predictive evidence” that he said he really WANTED to see, well, for two weeks he’s just been in some sort of cognito, missing in action, gone with the wind, etc.

    At first I thought that maybe the fact that we had real proof like copyrights might have given him dyspepsia, since it’s one thing to argue with dopey UFO types and another to try to debunk the Library of Congress. Then I said to myself, “Mike, you don’t mind if I call you Mike? Hey, what if Phil got hisself deducted by extratorrentials? Whoa dude, you’d never have a chance to prove to him that Meier predicted Apophis waaaaaaaaaay before officious discovery…and all that other stuff too!”

    So you can imagine how relived I am to know that Phil’s holding court over here and showing that he really is a skeptic, more than a scientist I guess. Cause with that scientist thing, while it was a cool disguise, everybody knows that a REAL scientist sure would want to see the kind of evidence that…THEY claim they want to see, if you get my drift. I mean it’s the CHURCH that doesn’t wanna look through the telescope not real scientists, right?

    And if we really don’t have those copyrights that sure would shut us up a lot better and Phil could go back to that UFO blog (, head held high, beatin’ his chest and be welcomed by the cheering masses.

    I guess then it would be safe for Michael Shermer and all the other know-it-all skeptics to come out of hiding too but maybe that’s another story.

  19. Michael Horn says:

    P.S. Can you believe that even this kooky, krazy bunch of wackos carried the story, like zillions of other ones worldwide?,+Media,+Music/Wall+Street+Journal/0fYE9Fv7R31hq/1

    • Kal says:

      This is yet another LESS THAN TRUTHFUL STATEMENT by Michael Horn. The only reason USA Today carried it, is NOT because they assigned a journalist to it nor anything like that, it is BECAUSE MICHAEL HORN GINNED UP A PRESS RELEASE AND PUT IT ON PR WEB, WHERE HORN HAS AN ACCOUNT! Michael Horn, not “coincidentally” is an official spokesman for the Billy Meier UFO Cult who MAKES A FINANCIAL LIVING PROMOTING THE BILLY MEIER UFO CULT AND CONSUMER FRAUD. Horn sells photos he says show “real extraterrestrial spacecraft” even though they show MODELS. This is consumer fraud, regardless of the subject. Billy Meier is a modern day PROFIT, not a “prophet” — Meier is a con artist whose “irreproducible UFO photos” HAVE BEEN DUPLICATED and are now in the process of being published. Horn and Meier are exposed in a new 34 volume book series which PROVES they lie to trusting consumers and are committing fraud and have been reported to police and other authorities for doing so. Horn and Meier also engage in anti-Semitic remarks, and blood libels against the Jews. Horn and Meier also claim that Islam’s Koran, the Holy Bible and the Jewish Torah were “faked” — and that ALL religions are frauds and that Billy Meier is the LAST CHOSEN PROPHET OF ALL HUMANITY after Jesus and Islam’s Mohammad, which of course is a lie.

  20. Michael Horn says:

    Gosh that quote mining thing really is terrible, I mean when Phil says something like this about his criteria for UFO evidence:

    “What do I count as evidence? Hard, physical data…I want some piece of predictive evidence — a map of an alien world that can eventually be verified, or an alien-given advance in physics that can later be verified with the LHC or some other cutting-edge technology…it has to be definite and precise, so that there is no controversy.”

    …it really is unfair to actually – provide him with what he says he wants, like according to his own un-mined words.

    And I would think that an aggregation of Plaitelets would be the perfect environment in which to to provide that evidence.

    But nooooooooooo, efforts to resuscitate the debate are predictively anemic once you hold the know-it-alls to their own claims. Pardon me but now I am a skeptic about Mr. Phil’s credibility.

    But please don’t quote mine me…