Britton’s Law

Creationists stopped evolving eons ago

You may have seen Vjack’s Law, which is:

Provided sufficient time and responses from Christians, any critical analysis of the Christian bible performed by an atheist will inevitably lead some Christian to claim that his or her bible can only be correctly understood by the Christian faithful.

I like this, because it is a fairly reliable predictor.

More famously, we have Godwin’s Law, which is:

As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.

I’m sure you’ve seen this play out in numerous venues.

But now, let’s take a side trip and visit Stephen Jay Gould. Wikipedia tells us this about some of his writings:

One reason for such criticism was that Gould appeared to be presenting his ideas as a revolutionary way of understanding evolution, and he argued for the importance of mechanisms other than natural selection, mechanisms which he believed had been sidelined by other researchers.

This is an important point. Darwin himself proposed two mechanisms by which evolution functioned: natural selection and sexual selection. We now know that evolution is even more complex than Darwin proposed. Although natural selection is a huge factor, it is not the only thing going on. Because of its early identification with evolution as the main process, it is falsely coupled in many people’s minds as the only process of evolution. Scientists, of course, know better. Nevertheless, natural selection still seems to get the bulk of the scientists’ mindshare. Gould was advocating against that.

Wikipedia continues:

As a result, many non-specialists sometimes inferred from his early writings that Darwinian explanations had been proven to be unscientific (which Gould never tried to imply). Along with many other researchers in the field, Gould’s works were sometimes deliberately taken out of context by creationists as a “proof” that scientists no longer understood how organisms evolved. Gould himself corrected some of these misinterpretations and distortions of his writings in later works.

As you can see, Gould is rich ore for creationist quote miners. That leads me to propose Britton’s law (if somebody has already stated this, please let me know!):

As a creationist’s rant grows longer, the probability of an out-of-context quotation from Stephen Jay Gould approaches one.

UPDATE (4/4/09):
Based on the comments, I realize that Gould isn’t always invoked in internet discussions. However, he absolutely is always mentioned on creationist websites. Therefore, I have revised Britton’s Law. It is now simpler and more elegant:

All creationist websites eventually quote mine Stephen Jay Gould.

12 Responses to “Britton’s Law”

  1. (((Billy))) The Atheist Says:

    Oddly, I have never had that happen on any of my comment threads. I’ve had the one about Christianity/religion/the Bible can only be understood through faith numerous times, but never Britton’s Law.

  2. J. A. Baker Says:

    I caught DaveScot in a Britton’s Law instance a couple of weeks ago.

  3. Ron Britton Says:


    Art Battson does it right here in the first paragraph of his recent comment about my exposé of his anti-evolution website.

    You’ll primarily see this law in action on web pages, less so in comment threads. Maybe I should rephrase the law somehow to reflect that (anyone have a good rewrite?). Kevin Wirth notwithstanding, quote mining occurs more frequently on web pages than in comment threads. It seems that most creationist web sites that have quotes will manage to find gold in Gould.

  4. Ron Britton Says:

    J. A. Baker:

    Thank you for that excellent example! That’s exactly what I’m talking about.

    I like your statement:

    Q: What’s the First Rule of Creationist Quote Mining?

    A: If there’s an ellipsis in the quote, it’s probably mined.

    That’s probably a near-universal truth, far stronger than either Vjack’s Law or Britton’s Law. It wouldn’t be fair to call it Baker’s law, though. P.T. Barnum was famous for this. He’d take bad reviews of his shows and turn them into raving endorsements by judicious use of elipses. We’ll have to call it Barnum’s Universal Law of Creationist Arguments. The acronym isn’t catchy. Maybe somebody can think of something better.

  5. Ron Britton Says:

    J. A. Baker:

    I just visited that page at the Talk Origins Archive that you linked to. I guess I hadn’t seen that page. It’s great! It lists all of the most common nuggets mined from scientists.

    I noticed that Gould had more quotes on there than anyone, even Darwin.

  6. Thomas Says:

    It’s almost axiomatic that any writer that is sufficiently prolific can be mined for quotes that support any argument, even regarding subjects on which they did not comment.

    The flip side of this is when a particular person becomes known for a single idea that was only a small, often contextless, part of their greater work. Adam Smith comes to mind. The Invisible Hand, for which he is so well known, in barely an afterthought in The Wealth of Nations, a single statement in work of more than a thousand pages.

  7. Parrotlover77 Says:

    How about… The longer a fundie quote-mines, the likelihood of taking Gould out of context approaches 1? There are plenty of instances where fundies argue without quote mining (commonly drive-by postings), although that may be a separate law in and of itself. The longer an argument with a fundie progresses, the likelier they are to quote mine. Maybe Britton’s law should be broken down into those two points?

    Yea, Godwin’s Law is pretty amazing. It is just about as spot-on as Moore’s Law. Not too many “unscientific” laws are as accurate as those two. Godwin certainly has expanded to pretty much any medium of the internet. At the time it was coined, usenet was pretty much the only discussion format available on the internet, so replacing usenet with “internet discussion medium” is not a stretch of the spirit of the law at all.

  8. Ron Britton Says:

    Maybe something like “All creationist websites eventually quote mine Stephen Jay Gould.”

  9. J. A. Baker Says:

    Thanks, Ron. I can’t exactly claim originality on that formulation, though. I think PZ said words to that effect first.

  10. J. A. Baker Says:

    We’ll have to call it Barnum’s Universal Law of Creationist Arguments. The acronym isn’t catchy. Maybe somebody can think of something better.

    I dunno, BULCA is one syllable short of bull-caca, which is highly amusing and appropriate.

  11. freddies_dead Says:

    Barnum’s Universal Law of Creationist Rhetoric and Argumentative Petulance

  12. J. A. Baker Says:

    Barnum’s Universal Logic Law of Creationist Rhetoric and Argumentative Petulance