Things Albert Einstein Didn’t Say
Misattributed quotes are a huge problem. Here’s why.
I love the Internet. I love the massive shift it has spurred in how quickly knowledge and information can spread. A person, it seems, could learn everything in the world by waiting for it to flow by on social media.
One particular kind of information often pops up on my Facebook and Tumblr feeds: Inspirational words, overlaid on a picture of a famous leader, wit, or wise person.
How wonderful to have so much wisdom available to anyone with an Internet connection!
To celebrate, let’s play a game: Can you match the quotation to the person who said it?
How’d you do? Did you recognize these quotes from pins people have stuck on their Pinterest boards, retweeted, or used in a presentation? How many of these were you able to match?
Unfortunately, the game is rigged. There are no correct answers.
None of the famous names above wrote or said any of the above “quotations.” All of these, sadly, are examples of misattributions I’ve seen float across my screen.
Why is this a Problem?
Shouldn’t I just relax? Who cares? I mean, most of those people aren’t even alive. Why should it matter if they get credit for things they said or didn’t say?
I admit this isn’t a huge problem for the misquoted many. But if you write, give presentations, or even just click “Share,” it is a problem for you.
If I were Jane Austen, my novel about this problem would be called Credulity & Credibility.
Spreading incorrect or outdated information can affect your credibility.
If you share an item that I know to be misattributed, that damages my trust in your expertise.
It’s possible you’re someone who’s not careful about checking sources, and perhaps I shouldn’t believe everything you say. (If you’re my friend, rather than my colleague, I’ll still like you — but I might not rely on you for factual information.)
On the other hand, if you’re someone who is overly credulous, and accepts information without question, your personal web of knowledge is weakened — which also makes me unlikely to consider you an expert.
I was at a conference in June. One of the speakers was trying to build our enthusiasm for innovation and creative thinking. I was interested, paying attention, and taking notes on my laptop.
And then he said: “In the words of Albert Einstein, ‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.’”
“Einstein? Doesn’t sound like him,” I thought.
A quick search led to a couple of fairly reputable sources that agreed that the specific quotation is most likely from a 1981 Narcotics Anonymous handbook, and was popularized by Rita Mae Brown’s 1983 novel Sudden Death.
Suddenly, I no longer trusted the presenter. The misattribution — which he could have avoided with five minutes of web research — had turned him from an expert into a snake-oil salesman.
I felt like he was wasting my time.
Why is this a Knowledge Management Problem?
This phenomenon — sayings being widely shared, but not attributed to a credible source — is a tiny example of a huge challenge in knowledge management.
Given the unprecedented ease, speed, and scale with which information and knowledge can be spread on the Internet, how do we equip knowledge seekers with the skills to sort the useful information from the nonsense? Yes, it’s easier than ever for more people to get information. But getting reliable information — accurate, up-to-date, and credible — is much harder.
One of our primary jobs as knowledge managers (in my case, in a global public health context) is to increase the reach of high-quality information that is well-researched, based on evidence or documented experience. Once internalized and used, high-quality information becomes knowledge.
Poor-quality information — not well-researched, not supported by evidence, incomplete, or confusingly worded — creates a mistaken sense of power. When internalized, this kind of information does not create knowledge; it creates misconceptions and superstitions — spurious knowledge that, when used, doesn’t have the expected result.
Besides making some people mistrust your authority on matters Jungian, believing that Carl Jung said “Life really does begin at 40” shouldn’t have many ill effects. But poor-quality information on critical topics — such as health issues like family planning, communicable diseases, and vaccination— can be inconvenient, disastrous, or even fatal.
How To Avoid the “Credulity & Credibility” Trap
Tips for Knowledge Sharers
It’s OK to leave a saying unattributed. The adage about a fish being judged on its ability to climb a tree? It speaks a truth. If a friend of mine posted it as a saying on its own, I might share it. But it’s not Einstein. A thought does not need to have been said by a famous person to have value. You can say “I heard a nice/funny/inspiring thing recently — it doesn’t look like anyone really knows who said this, but…” You can also express your own thoughts, experiences, and opinions without having to pretend you heard them from a famous person — original thought is a good thing!
Share the good; call out the bad. You’ve heard of memes, right? Most people now use the term to mean a photo with a caption that spreads over social media. Originally it meant “a unit of cultural transmission” — a metaphor for a piece of memory or knowledge, in the same way a gene is a piece of genetic information or DNA. Misattributed memes are like badly-copied genes. Most of the time they won’t do much harm, but once in a while a bad meme can cause major disease in the body of human knowledge. Don’t spread bad memes.
Tips for Knowledge Seekers
Think critically. This is your responsibility as an audience or a student. Here’s a long definition of what “critical thinking” means, but to me it boils down to “Grant your intellectual trust carefully.” Question things. Check your sources. If someone tells you a “fact” you find amazing (like “Coconut oil is antiviral!”), look a little harder for a reputable source. (If you find one, I’d love to hear about it. There’s a growing body of evidence about coconut oil being antimicrobial, but none of the microbes studied were viruses.)
Remember that Google is not a librarian. I’ve run into a few situations in which people describe their dream knowledge management system, and then say “You know — like Google!” I remind them that Google is an algorithm, not an expert. The algorithm is a trade secret, but it generally ranks popular sites higher than unpopular ones. Unfortunately, “popular” does not mean “reliable.” For checking quotes from famous people, Goodreads, Brainyquote.com, and Pinterest are often the first results that come up in a Google search, but those are unreliable sources.
Find sites that share knowledge for the sake of knowledge. A primary motivation for most sites that aggregate and share content on the Internet is advertising. Sites like BuzzFeed exist to collect clicks and pageviews, so they can charge for ad placements. If you need reliable information, look for repositories in which advertising is absent or secondary — where the sharing of knowledge is the primary goal.
Look for curation, not just aggregation. Collections like Brainyquote.com aren’t thoroughly researched or checked. Anyone can submit just about anything. As a result, these collections contain many items that are misattributed, and many more that are attributed to multiple people (or to more nebulous sources like “Ancient Chinese Proverb” or “Native American Saying”). In almost any realm of knowledge, you can find collections that are more carefully tended — selected with some kind of quality check, organized for ease of use, and maintained by an individual or group who is an expert in the field and wants to share that expertise. For example, QuoteInvestigator.com and Wikiquote are both doing sound work in the curation of quotations from famous people.
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