A Second Grammatical Interlude

Readers may have noticed I haven't written any posts in the last week, and I haven't been updating my In Process Review of Mark Steyn's latest book, A Disgrace to the Profession. I haven't given up on things, but the more I read Steyn's book, the more I realized the current approach wasn't effective.

I like the idea of doing "live" reviews like this, but Steyn's book is so repetitive there's just not point. Even worse, there are so many problems with his book one could never hope to cover them in a single read through. So instead, I've decided I'll approach his book in a more systematic, research manner. It's not as fun, but it will let me work out just what's wrong with the book in a far more structured manner.

Now, I know a lot of people won't care. For whatever reasons, a lot of people will love Steyn's book no matter what. They will continue to love the idea of him providing 120 quotations from "experts" they can use as talking points, no matter what. It won't matter that some of the quotes weren't in reference to Michael Mann, his work or anything related to it. It won't matter that many of the quotes have their meanings distorted due to being heavily quoted mined. It won't even matter that by my current count, 71 of those 120 quotations qualify as misquotations.

Now, I'll be the first to admit a number of these misquotations are relatively minor. However, that's not the topic of today's post. Today I'm not going to discuss the severity or importance of misquotations. Today I'm just going to look at a bizarre grammatical issue that came up in Steyn's book and ask if it qualifies as a misquotation. Because honestly, it's so weird, I don't know.

Before I get to the main example, I want to show what I mean by a "relatively minor" misquotation. In Section 43, Steyn presents us this quote from Keith Briffa:

I am sick to death of Mann.

That's a pretty strong sounding quote. Briffa and Mann are colleagues. Both have even been lead authors of the paleoclimate chapter of the IPCC report, with Mann taking the role in the Third Assessment Report while Briffa took it in the Fourth. That makes it pretty meaningful for Steyn to be able to say in this section:

As "sick to death of Mann" as he was in 2002, Professor Briffa would grow a lot sicker of him in the years ahead...

That sort of narrative is a compelling one. Briffa, an important figure in the paleoclimate community, was sick of Mann before the hockey stick controversy even began. He only grew sicker of Mann as time passed. That's pretty damning. Only, it's complete BS. Steyn only managed to create this narrative via a convenient misquotation. Here is the actual quotation:

I am sick to death of Mann stating his reconstruction represents the tropical area just because it contains a few (poorly temperature representative) tropical series.

Steyn took the first part of this out of context, then added a period to present it as a standalone sentence. In doing so, he made it appear Briffa was "sick to death of Mann" rather than just sick to death of one thing Mann does. The misquotation here was relatively minor, nothing more than adding a single period, but it still helped Steyn completely change the meaning of the quote.

I may be sick to death of my friend posting silly cat photos on Facebook, but we're still going to go hang out and have a good time tonight. In the same way, Briffa being sick of Mann doing one thing doesn't tell us how he feels about Mann as a whole.

But anyway, enough about that. The point of that is just to establish how misquotations, no matter how seemingly minor, can be relevant. The reason I wanted to take some time to establish that is I have no idea what to make of a paragraph in the body of Steyn's Section 94:

Last week American climatologist Michael Mann told a US Senate Committee: "Christ de Freitas... frequently publishes op-ed pieces in newspapers in New Zealand attacking the IPCC and attacking Kyoto... So that is a fairly unusual editor..."

This paragraph is attributed to an article in the New Zealand Herald by a guy named Simon Collins. When I looekd up the article, I noticed some odd changes:

Last week, American climatologist Michael Mann told a US Senate committee: "Chris de Freitas ... frequently publishes op-ed pieces in newspapers in New Zealand attacking the IPCC and attacking Kyoto and attacking the work of mainstream climatologists in this area. So that is a fairly unusual editor that we are talking about."

The first thing I notifced is the comma after the introductory phrase was removed. I don't get that. If you think a change like that is okay because it doesn't matter, then why even bother making it? You're on a computer. If you want to quote something, just copy and paste it. It's really easy.

But that comma wasn't what confused me. Look at the end of Steyn's version of the quote. It ends with Collins quoting Michael Mann, but with an ellipsis. This confused me for a moment because there was no ellipsis in the Herald's version of Mann's quote. Then I realized Steyn was putting an ellipsis there to indicate he was removing part of the Herald article.

Now, I think that's kind of wrong. He modified Mann's quote as provided by Collins to indicate he was removing part of Collins's writing. A person reading Steyn's book wouldn't know that. They could easily assume Collins had only provided part of a quote, and Steyn was providing everything Collins had said.

Now, I get it. Steyn could have easily avoided this by putting an ellipsis after the quotation marks or at the beginning of the next paragraph, but neither of those would have looked as good. I don't think that justifies the decision, but I wouldn't complain much about it either. Only, it did make me look more closely at the two versions. Let's do that now. Here's the original version:

Last week, American climatologist Michael Mann told a US Senate committee: "Chris de Freitas ... frequently publishes op-ed pieces in newspapers in New Zealand attacking the IPCC and attacking Kyoto and attacking the work of mainstream climatologists in this area. So that is a fairly unusual editor that we are talking about."

Here's Steyn's version:

Last week American climatologist Michael Mann told a US Senate Committee: "Christ de Freitas... frequently publishes op-ed pieces in newspapers in New Zealand attacking the IPCC and attacking Kyoto... So that is a fairly unusual editor..."

Now one thing I didn't mention before is when I first looked up the original version, I quickly noticed Steyn had changed the spacing style of it. The original article put a space before the ellipsis, which Steyn removed. I didn't mention it because spacing styles normally aren't meaningful so changing them doesn't matter.

But having already noticed that, and taking note of Steyn's addition of an ellipsis at the end of the quote, I quickly noticed there was another peculiarity. In Steyn's version of Mann's quote, there is an ellipsis after the phrase "attacking Kyoto." That's not present in the original version. The original version of Mann's quote said "attacking Kyoto and attacking the work of mainstream climatologists in this area."

Is that okay? Steyn wasn't quoting Mann. Steyn was quoting Collins, who had quoted Mann. How can Steyn change what Collins quoted Mann as saying? How is a reader supposed to know it was Steyn, not Collins, who omitted those words? They can't. Anyone who sees an ellipsis in a quotation will assume words were omitted by whoever is providing that quote.

Imagine if I did the same right now. Imagine if I wrote about how I was reading Steyn's book and I saw him quote an article by Simon Collins:

Last week, American climatologist Michael Mann told a US Senate committee: "Chris de Freitas... frequently publishes op-ed pieces in newspapers... that is a fairly unusual editor that we are talking about."

Would that be okay? Can Steyn omit some words from Mann's quote, then me turn around and omit additional words, and both of us pretend we're still actually quoting the original article? If so, where does it end? Can somebody come behind me and say they saw me quote Collins's article:

Last week, American climatologist Michael Mann told a US Senate committee: "Chris de Freitas... is a fairly unusual editor that we are talking about."

My instinct is to say this is all completely wrong. My instinct is to say you can't omit parts of quotations unless you make it clear that you did it. That would mean you can't simply add ellipses to nested quotations because nobody seeing them could tell they were added by you.

But honestly, I don't think I've ever seen a rule on this. I don't think I've ever had it come up before. I can't think of a time I've seen somebody say, "I want to quote this article as quoting a guy, but I want to change what it quotes him as saying." Maybe you can do it, if you just add a footnote?

I don't know. I don't think it's a big deal either. I just think it's bizarre. Something like 80% of Steyn's book is made up of quotations, often lengthy ones. That leads to a number of nested quotations. And apparently, any number of them could have been changed by Steyn without that being made clear. And yet, almost right at the start of the book Steyn says:

One quick bit of business: In the pages that follow, the source for each scientist’s quotation is footnoted. However, because of the extraordinary level of paranoia about “doctored quotes” that attends the climate debate, we’ve retained the various spellings – British, American or the often charming English of Swedes and Finns – and made only a few punctuation changes.

I have to say, I wasn't worried about "doctored quotes" when I bought this book. I certainly wasn't paranoid about them. But now? I kind of am. When over half the quotations in the book are misquotations, and an unknown number of quotations have been changed in ways the reader couldn't possibly be aware of, I'd say a certain level of paranoia about "doctored quotes" is justified.

4 comments

  1. Hi Brandon

    I saw this post a few days ago but didn't really have any answers. However your quote at CE today really encapsulated a big problem which we have discussed before.

    'Are those supposed to be quotes from Steven Mosher or something else? I thought the italics meant they were quotes, but I don’t see him (or anyone else) saying them anywhere on this page.'

    As far as I was always concerned if you quote someone directly you put speech marks round it. If there is a break between the words that you have missed out, usually for brevity, you put....or start a new quote.

    However in discussions related to climate, and no doubt politics and many other fields, it has become impossible to distinguish who actually said what as there is such a pernicious use of scare quotes (often by a few specific individuals) whereby meanings are inferred rather than were actually said, or things appear to be totally made up. Over at CE (and at other places) I look in amazement as things are attributed to me in speech marks that I never said or have been twisted or taken out of context.

    Steyn seems to me to do this overtly and subtly and the end result is that it is difficult to know what is true and what is imaginary. It is not a style of writing that I like. It may seem very old fashioned but I will continue to put things in speech marks that were actually said or will make it clear that it is my interpretation.

    tonyb

  2. BTW, I also meant to say that I generally find Matthew to be a reliable contributor so I suspect his quotes are correct, so I am making a more general point, prompted by your comment.

    tonyb

  3. Hey tonyb, thanks for the comment. Apparently Judith Curry deleted some comments of Steven Mosher's, including whichever one the quote you're referring to was in. That's one of the reasons I don't like that sort of moderation approach. I think silently deleting comments is bad for a number of reasons, but one of biggest is it creates cases like this where someone quotes a deleted comment and then... what? Do you delete their comment too? Do you let their comment stand, even though it references a comment nobody can ever see? It's just weird. That's why I think moderation should only be done in a clear and obvious manner. It keeps everybody on the same page.

    Oh well. It's nowhere near as big a problem as quotation issues. I'm glad to hear I'm not the only person who's noticed those. One thing that especially throws me off is some of Mark Steyn's quotes come from people who were speaking in other languages, yet he does nothing to indicate the words on the page were translated. How does that work? Translating a person's words from one language to another is kind of a big deal, especially since at least two of his translations introduced grammatical errors not present in the original material. I don't think you can leave off the fact you're completely changing what I've said with the reader having nothing but faith in your ability to do translations well to assure them you got it right. (And if you introduce grammatical errors when doing translations, you probably aren't that good at doing them.)

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