Tag Archives: Google Books

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.


Brain plasticity as cliché

21 Apr

It seems almost a requirement. Every time someone writes about the brain, we are told that, until recently, scientists believed that the brain was fixed. But now, in more enlightened times, we now know that the brain is plastic and capable of change.

Claims of this type are found in both the popular literature and scientific papers. For example, a paper in Psychological Science says:

“Although the brain was once seen as a rather static organ, it is now clear that the organization of brain circuitry is constantly changing as a function of experience. These changes are referred to as brain plasticity.”

While this makes a good story, showing how we have risen above previous misunderstandings. I don’t think it is a fair representation of the history. In researching my upcoming book, I have found descriptions of the brain as plastic from back before the 1950s. Such references are easy to find in Google Books. Here is one published in Brain: A Journal of Neurology from 1894, that tells that that the brain is “plastic and educable, not a rigidly pre-established structure.”


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