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Nike not Emerson

3 Aug

I just received an email from a yoga study with this quotation:

“The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

Does that really sound like Emerson? A little internet searching turns up the real source, a 1991 Nike advertisement.

Here are some of Emerson’s actual words:

“Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say ‘I think,’ ‘I am,’ but quotes some saint or sage.”


How to check quotation accuracy

8 Apr

Recently I saw a this quotation used as a tagline on an email:

“Great discoveries and achievements invariably involve the cooperation of many minds.” – Alexander Graham Bell.

I am always suspicious about quotations, so I investigated. The easiest way to check on the veracity of a quotation is to use Google Books. Google Books allows you to limit your search to specific time frames. Since Bell died in 1922, you would expect his remarks to appear sometime in his lifetime. In the fact if you set your search to for the time between 1800 and 1990 you will not find it. I could not find it until I extended my search to the year 2000. This doesn’t prove that Bell never said these words. Perhaps, he said something very similar, that I could not find with my Google search, but I am skeptical.

The Einstein Quotation Heuristic

21 Sep

Today, I present to the world (historians take note) The Einstein Quotation Heuristic:

Assume any quotation attributed to Albert Einstein to be spurious unless a verifiable source is cited.

A few weeks ago,  I was reading a thread on a mediation site and came across a post with a long quotation, supposedly written by Einstein to his daughter Lieserl. I won’t copy the entire text, but this will give you the flavor:

“There is an extremely powerful force that, so far, science has not found a formal explanation to. It is a force that includes and governs all others, and is even behind any phenomenon operating in the universe and has not yet been identified by us. This universal force is LOVE.

When scientists looked for a unified theory of the universe they forgot the most powerful unseen force. Love is Light, that enlightens those who give and receive it. Love is gravity, because it makes some people feel attracted to others. Love is power, because it multiplies the best we have, and allows humanity not to be extinguished in their blind selfishness.

Love unfolds and reveals. For love we live and die. Love is God and God is Love”

The letter, of course, is a complete hoax. What depresses me most about this is that the only thing that people seem to know about Einstein is that he was a really smart guy. Thus, they are anxious to have him endorse some already held belief. Paradoxically, when you point out that these are not Einsteins words, they assert that it doesn’t really matter because the sentiments are true. One wonders, why, if the sentiments were so compelling, someone felt they had to attribute them to Einstein?

Wouldn’t it be great if we took the time to read great thinkers, like Einstein, instead of reducing them to superficial, and often false, quotations?


George Bernard Shaw didn’t say it, so stop giving him credit.

13 Jun

George Bernard Shaw was a man of many talents, but he did not say “We don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing.” Shaw died in 1950, the quotation does not show up in Google Books until decades after that. When it does show up it is credited to Satchel Paige. I cannot verify that these are Piage’s words, but it certainly sounds more like something he would have said.

Is it important to attribute quotations to their correct source? I think so, but more than that I reject this tendency to reduce people to pithy sayings and not wrestle with their actual contributions.

Citing nonexistent research

7 Nov

Some years ago, I wrote an article for The Skeptic about a widely cited education study. Unfortunately, the research had had a fundamental flaw: it was never conducted.

Blogger Judge Starling writes about citations of another non-existent study: He notes:

‘”My wife is an historian and she has always cautioned me not to rely on second-hand quotations. Not ever! “You either read the papers you quote, or you quote the secondary reference.” ‘


Quotationism, how spurious and misattributed quotations do harm.

7 Oct

This morning, Cristian Mihai’s blog leads with a quotation from Picasso:

“Every Child is an Artist. The problem is staying an artist when you grow up.”

There is a small problem here; Picasso never said or wrote those words. I am bothered by the proliferation of spurious and misattributed quotations. I actually believe that this practice is both a result and a cause of sloppy thinking:

1. A misattributed quotation is unfair to the person who actually wrote the words, we are denying credit to the actual creator. It is also unfair to the person falsely credited. It is putting words into someone’s mouth.

2. Spurious quotations are  variations of the logical fallacy,  argument of from authority. By assigning some proposition to a respected figure we call all too easily justify our existing prejudices. Sometimes this reaches absurd levels. Mother Teresa never said: “Reach high, for stars lie hidden in your soul. Dream deep, for every dream precedes the goal.” Indeed, this bit of very American self help advice, does not even remotely sound like like something she would have written.  Also, notice that Mother Teresa is given a moral authority that she may not actually deserve.

3. Certainly, it is legitimate to quote someone to show the source of an idea or to repeat a particularly pithy or cogent expression of a thought. But, quotationism is often a substitute for real thought and real analysis. Why bother to go back and read a great thinker in the original when it all be reduced to a hackneyed sentence? The fact that so many writers will pass on a quotation without checking it for accuracy (something one can now easily do with Google Books) is appalling.


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