Proof-texting is the use of out-of-context quotes to support an argument. Most often, proof-texting is used in the quoting of religious texts, although scholarly texts are often used. The technique is somewhat related to and is often combined with sophistry, which uses garbled logic to support an illogical claim. Proof-texting is generally disdained by experts as an attempt to deceive a gullible audience, and is often considered a logical fallacy of authoritarian bias.
In a typical proof-text, a person will use a quote, often a Biblical verse, as evidence for their related argument. For example, if a person was arguing that it is fine to disobey speed limits on roads, they might point out that the texts of their religion say that only God’s law matters, and since God didn’t set the speed limit, there is no reason to follow it.
This type of argument is frequently called the fallacy of appeal to authority. In this use of incorrect logic, the arguer basis their position on an idea handed down by an authority figure, such as God. Most proof-texting bases itself on the presumed infallibility of its authority figure. In other words, it doesn’t matter if the argument makes any sense, if the authority figure said it, it must be true.
Another method of proof-texting is by bringing together two quotes from the same source as conclusive evidence for an argument. In this form the arguer suggests that because both quotes come from an authoritative source, they are not only true but must be related. For example, if a book began with the line “Joe shot himself,” and ended with the line “and they all lived happily ever after,” a proof-texter might imply that everyone lived happily because Joe shot himself, which is by no means a necessary logical conclusion.
The bad reputation of proof-texting lies in its ignorance of context. While it is of course possible to draw arguments and connections logically from religious or scholarly texts, the context of the quote is often deliberately ignored to aid an argument. Occasionally, an out-of-context proof-text can be used to argue the absolute reverse of the original quote. For instance, in the example “Joe shot himself,” the reader is left with a possibly incomplete picture. If the actual sentence is contextually sarcastic or ironic, it could very well mean that Joe didn’t shoot himself.
Proponents of proof-texting suggest that, because of its unfavorable reputation, any use of textual support is now too easily dismissed as inherently fallacious. This practice in itself is a logical fallacy, commonly referred to as a “fallacy fallacy.” It is certainly possible to build a logically sound argument using textual support from authoritative sources, and this practice forms the basis of many religious and scholastic teaching. With proper attention to context, proof-texting can be a useful tool in teaching.