Fake quotations

(This is one of several posts on this topic – see also Quotable Quotes Feb 14)

There are number of well-known logical fallacies.  You can buy a wonderful poster with the most common ones here.  You’ll recognise some old favourites.  “Ad hominem” – attacking the person who says something rather than what they say: only send a tweet attacking Jeremy Corbyn and you’ll quickly see what I mean.   “Slippery slope” – we can’t do a sensible thing like A because it would all end up with Z – remember the Americans who said that same sex marriage was all very well, but we shouldn’t do it because it would end up with humans marrying animals.   I had a recent run on with the anecdotal fallacy – “my wife was a working class kid who made it from a grammar school, so all grammar schools must be great for working class kids”.  This is a version of “smoking doesn’t cause cancer because my grandpa smoked a pipe till he was 96”. Then there’s  “Post hoc, ergo propter hoc” – “after that, therefore because of that” – which refers to the belief that because one thing happened after another, it caused it.  This has led many astray, particularly those who claim that vaccines made their child autistic. They had the injection, then the child became unwell – makes sense, doesn’t it.  The bandwagon effect – 30 million Frenchmen can’t be wrong – is a cracker, too.  The Corbyn campaign has been full of the ‘tu quoque’ – ‘you too’ – fallacy.  “You think Arab extremists are bad – just look at what Israel did in Gaza !”.

A popular fallacy on the internet is the ‘appeal to authority’.  This defends a proposition because someone authoritative, or famous, says so.  Which is understandable.  If someone pointed out that my heroes – George Orwell, Maynard Keynes, Bruce Springsteen – said something, I would give it rather more consideration than if Kingsley Amis, George Osborne or Mick Jagger did. But the fact that someone supports something doesn’t make it true.  Least of all is something true if you have made up the support of authoritative figures.  Which happens a lot.

Here are some I’ve noticed recently, and they’re all quotations from famous people. Well, they’re not, actually, but we’ll find that out in passing.

  1. A correspondent to the Sunday Times published a quotation from Cicero, the great Roman statesman. The budget should be balanced, the treasury should be refilled, public debt should be reduced, the arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, and the assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed lest Rome become bankrupt. People must again learn to work, instead of living on public assistance. Coincidentally, this quotation supports the agenda of the Conservatives in the UK, and the Republicans in the USA. Which is no surprise, as it was written by a right wing novelist and first quoted in the House of Representatives by a Republican Congressman in the 1950s.  I think the clue is in the idea that the Roman Empire gave generous assistance to ‘foreign lands’.  Maybe a short check of what happened to Boudicca, Vercingetorix or the tribes of Brittany (or a hundred other conquered places) might suggest the Roman Empire was not quite a worldwide welfare state.
  2. A Twitterer I used to follow became addicted to quotations from Machiavelli. Well, I say quotations from Machiavelli, but … er … they aren’t.  One says “I’m not interested in preserving the status quo – I want to overthrow it”, which rather gives the game away as the great man spent his time working out how “The Prince” could retain power and beat off rivals. Anyone more vigilant to preserve the status quo, or get back in its good books, would be difficult to find. Certainly not Newt Gingrich, whose quotation this actually is. The disseminator of the bogus Machiavelli got very upset when I politely told him they were made up, pausing for a few obscenities before demanding to know if I had read everything Machiavelli wrote.
  3. Then there’s poor old Charles Darwin, who is brought to testify ideas very convenient to the new right. He’s alleged to have said It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change”. This is, of course, not Darwinism at all: he believed that those who had inherent assets that favoured survival became successful in breeding the next generation.  The idea that individual organisms could themselves change to adapt to their environment comes from Lamarck – or later, Lysenko – and … er … isn’t the same thing at all.  However, it was such a convenient quotation for the political and managerial numbskulls who tell us that we must accept any change, no matter how stupid, that it ended up on the wall of a Californian college.  Poor buggers had to take it down when they found out it was made up by a business studies lecturer in Louisiana in 1963.
  4. Last week, we had a stern portrait of Thomas Jefferson circulated by a screenwriters’ organisation. Superimposed on it was a quotation saying “Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask. Act! Action will delineate and define you.”  You may feel this sounds more like a station bookstall self-improvement book than the wisdom of a founding father, and you would be right.  No-one ever found this quotation before 1988.

Recently, the idea that George Orwell said “in a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act” has been tweeted to death. I’ve even got a tea towel that says it, alongside the great man’s portrait.  Problem – no-one can say if or when he said it. And you’ll have heard that Einstein said it was a sign of insanity to do the same thing and expect a different result.  Same problem – no record of him saying it.

There are a couple of points about these alleged quotations.  The first is that, though I’m no scholar when it comes to Cicero, Jefferson, Darwin or Machiavelli, even what I gleaned from a halting grammar school and polytechnic education tells me straight away that they are bogus.  So, what’s the conclusion, apart from finding that the internet is full of people who can’t check fake quotations on the internet ?  I think it goes back to my whine about confirmation bias, about the human trait to find evidence that supports your preformed views more compelling than evidence that challenges them.  People want them to be true, and so don’t expend the energy to check whether they are lies.


Footnote from August 2019.  I should know better than correct a Trumpist using misquotes on Twitter, but I did it last week.  But the alleged quotations were from Winston Churchill and George Orwell, and were obviously bogus: it would in any case be difficult to think of two people who would be more disgusted by the current stance of the Republican Party.  You may, I think, guess the response, and you’d be right to think it was not “thanks for that – I’ll correct my tweet”.  No, it was “You can’t handle the truth !”.  This has the benefit of being a correct quotation, but is a curious defence of falsehood.

Footnote from November 2021: Lord, it’s spreading to sensible, progressive people.  A C Grayling today tweeted that “It’s a sin to be silent when it is your duty to protest” and claimed it was by Abraham Lincoln. Which quote checking websites deny.

Footnote from July 2022: And now it’s spreading to me.  Seeing a tweet that suggested Keir Starmer was boring, I quoted Churchill’s dismissal of Attlee as ‘a modest man with much to be modest about’.  It turns out he didn’t say that at all – if anything it was a left wing critic who thought the 1945 Labour Government wasn’t being radical enough (hah !).  In line with my advice to others, I apologized and changed the tweet.

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