Not for attribution

Years ago in another galaxy (well, some Usenet newsgroup discussion) I was hyping a contrarian essay by Conor Cruise O’Brien in which he argued that the real Thomas Jefferson was so immoderate and unstable in his thinking that he needed to be demoted to at least the second tier of the American pantheon. It led to a big argument about whether wisdom could or should be taken independently of the source, i.e. does it matter who said it?

At the time I thought it did, and I used this oft-flung Jefferson aphorism to make my point:

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.

You can find the aphorism in context here (search on “tree of liberty”), but the context isn’t especially important to my point, which was that when considering an aphorism it is important to know who said it. If I had learned that the above words had been written by Abbie Hoffman, I would have laughed and ignored them. George Washington? I would pretty much take them at face value. But for me Jefferson sits in the middle somewhere, neither lunatic nor exemplar, and so I hesitate to conclude from the words themselves whether they are wise. I need to know more.

Fifteen years later I find that my thinking has changed completely, but in an unexpected way. I still want to know who said it—but only as a clue about whether it’ll be worth the work to understand what it says. Beyond that, I try to assume nothing about the wisdom of a quote based on who said it. I study the words, look for their context, compare them to what I already know and what others have said on the subject, and ponder it all. After that, if I find the words to be wise I will repeat them, but usually without attribution. I offer them for what they say, not for who originally said or wrote them.

I came to this place after a long series of disappointments. Quite often in the past I would select my authorities as carefully as possible, and then champion their words because of who had said them. I thought it was more important to cultivate trust, even at the expense of sometimes being wrong, than it was to be constantly scrutinizing the words of others. I used a story about Thomas Aquinas to defend this thinking:

St. Thomas Aquinas was often the object of practical jokes because of his childlike simplicity. His fellow students once told him to come to the window quickly, because a cow was flying in the air. He went at once to the window, looked up, and saw nothing. His guffawing friends asked him, “Come now, Thomas, did you really think that a cow could fly?” He responded, “I would have sooner thought that a cow could fly than that a monk would lie.”

That’s what I wanted too, a childlike simplicity that always granted the benefit of the doubt. I wanted to find trustworthy people, and then trust them.

My mistake, I think, was that I didn’t take full responsibility for that trust by keeping the results to myself. I repeated the words of my teachers as if they were authoritative—not because I knew they were true, but because my teachers had said them. Occasionally I made a fool of my self by repeating something stupid one had said, and even compounded the error with a vigorous defense of the teacher in the face of reasonable skepticism. More often I perpetuated false wisdom by adding my own small amount of clout—readers would give something more credence than it deserved because I had endorsed it, and they generally trusted what I said about other things.

So I don’t attribute aphorisms much anymore. Which makes me nervous sometimes, since I don’t intend to pass off someone else’s well-turned words as my own. Perhaps I should begin attributing them all to "(anon)”, just to be clear that they aren’t mine. But on the other hand, I do like having those words merged undifferentiated into my own wordstream—because I hope and expect that my readers are applying a prudent amount of scrutiny to my own words, and I don’t want them to give a pass to any aphorism I repeat just because someone with a reputation said it.

This all came to mind because of this great study of the origin, life, and death of a spurious quotation on the internet. (Read an interview with the accidental originator here.)

Jessica Dovey posted a thought on her Facebook status, and then followed it up with the Martin Luther King Jr. quote. At some point, someone cut and pasted the quote, and stripped out the quotation marks [around the King quote].  Eventually, the mangled quotation somehow came to the attention of Penn Jillette, of Penn and Teller fame.  He tweeted it to his 1.6 million Facebook followers, and the rest was internet history.  Twenty-four hours later, the quote brought back over 9,000 hits on Google.

What interests me here is why anyone cares whether the words were originally said by Martin Luther King Jr., or George Washington, or the Dalai Lama, or Newt Gingrich, or Jessica Dovey, or my Aunt Betty? All those people were capable of saying wise things, and dumb ones. And unless you want to study the original speaker’s further thinking on the subject, the words themselves are enough and shouldn’t gain or lack credibility from who said them.

Not too many people agree with me on this these days. A fun game to play on the internet is to take a quotation—not hard, since they’re being flung in your face continually—and trace down its provenance. Begin by typing a distinctive part of the quotation into a Google searchbox and see what turns up. If it is real the original source will almost always turn up high in the search results. If it is fake, you will embark on a fascinating journey. Here’s a quote that didn’t ring true to me the first time I saw it on a friend’s status.

“Unless we put medical freedom into the Constitution, the time will come
when medicine will organize into an undercover dictatorship to restrict
the art of healing to one class of Men and deny equal privileges to
others; the Constitution of the Republic should make a Special
privilege for medical freedoms as well as religious freedom.”
— Benjamin Rush, M.D.

So I did some Googling, turned up the actual source of the quote, and left this comment:

It’s hard for me to believe that an 18th century doctor could have written that. A Google search turns up lots of hits for it, mostly in post-1995 alternative medicine writings. There is also one mention in a 1949 self-published diatribe against drug companies, where it is attributed to "Benjamin Bush, M.D." with no further explanation (the pamphlet also mentions Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration).

What strikes about this quote, though, is sans the attribution to Benjamin Rush it doesn’t really say anything. And even if you take it as coming from Rush, the words don’t contain any wisdom in themselves—at best they hint at some wisdom he chose not to reveal which allowed him to predict the current state of affairs.

This game of quote-checking is entertaining and edifying, but if you adopt it as a hobby I recommend against sharing the results. Spurious quotes are not passed around as a way of sharing wisdom, but as part of a kitchen-sink strategy for making a point. At best you’ll hear back, “Well, if he didn’t say it he SHOULD have!”

Which in a sense I don’t dispute; if the words make a point, they make a point and should be shared. But I wish folks would refrain from bolstering them by attributing them to someone with a reputation. Just let them stand alone. The good ones won’t need any extra help.

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13 thoughts on “Not for attribution

  1. Ah, yes! I believe the Fallacy Detective calls that an appeal to authority, and lists it as a fallacy. But don’t quote me; I didn’t look it up to make sure!

  2. Laura,

    I believe the Fallacy Detective calls that an appeal to authority, and lists it as a fallacy.

    It’s definitely a wrong-headed misuse of authority, at least when the intent is to squelch disagreement rather than shed further light on an issue. The Benjamin Rush quote above is a good example.

    A subtler and more pernicious problem, which I probably should have explored in this post, is when we use authority as a substitute for thinking as we develop our own understanding of a matter. I was never one to blindly accept a teacher’s assertion, but I’ll confess to deferring to teachers on matters I hadn’t managed to think through on my own. I couldn’t even see this as a problem—after all, what else could I do to reach a conclusion?

    Seven or eight years ago I read Green Eye of the Storm, a book that recounts the difficulties of renown scientists who were also Christians during the period 1850-1950, when scientism was ascendant. These folks were beleagured by forces at work in their disciplines, and were scrambling to reconcile their faith with the discoveries that bombarded them from all sides.

    The writer says that during particularly dark 1930s his father was only able to answer questioning Christians with the response, “Awaiting further light.” That is, he neither capitulated to secular forces nor retreated into fundamentalist dogmatism, but simply suspended his understanding of a matter in confidence that further study would allow him to reconcile his faith with the facts.

    I wish I knew the origin of this phrase, or whether the state of mind it denotes has been discussed in detail. Through a Google NGrams search I found that it was commonly used between 1900 and 1940; the earliest occurrence in Google Books comes in 1864.

    Once I had a grasp of this, I began sorting through what I “knew” and discarding everything that was simply received wisdom. It surprised me how much had to go. But what was left were things I actually knew, or at least had figured out to my own satisfaction. It also surprised me that it was quite possible to live comfortably without fixed convictions on any number of matters which Christian teachers these days tout as vital. And it left me able to scrutinize new ideas much more thoroughly, knowing that there is no particular rush to settle the matter.

  3. Laura,

    Forgot to include this nice quote from Rainer Maria Rilke:

    I want to beg you to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves.

  4. Laura,

    Wow, jumped the gun! Here’s a fuller version of the Rilke quote, which says some other important things:

    Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions.

    Live the questions, indeed!

  5. Well, I like attributions because I like knowing who it was who thought that way and wonder what else he thought and said, and what kind of person he really was, and that sort of thing.

    So I guess I’m seeing the quotes from the opposite direction — as insight into someone’s character, rather than as anything authoritative.

    But I do admit that it’s fascinating when you come across something legit that’s like the Benjamin Rush quote — reading about someone who saw a potential problem that really did develop. That’s probably related to my fondness for science fiction and dystopian stories.

  6. Kelly,

    No disagreement from me. But on Twitter, Facebook statuses, and the like I only ever see quotes from famous people used in a “So there!” fashion, rather than to take a quick peek inside an interesting mind.

    When I use a quote without attribution, it is generally because I’ve absorbed the thought behind it and am willing to claim it as my own. And often the Twitter character limit forces me to condense and rephrase, making me even more reluctant to attribute. But sometimes, as with the Rilke quote, I’m passing along something that hints at greater riches for those who want to pursue them—and you need the name to get started on that.

    And, like you, I love prescience whenever I stumble across it, especially when it escapes the world at large. My favorite example comes from Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, where he points out that as prognosticators Orwell turned out to be quite wrong, while Huxley was quite right—and yet everyone talks about 1984, while hardly anyone remembers Brave New World.

  7. Quite often in the past I would select my authorities as carefully as possible, and then champion their words because of who had said them … I wanted … a childlike simplicity that always granted the benefit of the doubt. I wanted to find trustworthy people, and then trust them.

    You subsequently describe this as a mistake. And I agree, to an extent. When absolute trust is placed in any other, we have gone overboard. However, I cannot imagine having to research every purported fact that I rely on in order to base my actions on it. There are thousands of things that I believe that are “received” wisdom. If I spent my entire life trying to verify every tidbit that I use in making decisions, I would have no life.

    I think there has to be a balance somewhere. And that balance may include believing some things that, upon further investigation and reflection, I find less than credible. But that sure beats answering “awaiting further light” for every single question that I have not personally investigated. Agreed, certainly, that any belief is subject to being re-opened, re-evaluated, and potentially changed. But life can’t be lived when every belief is in flux.

    (Don’t quote me, though.) :)

  8. Jay,

    There are thousands of things that I believe that are “received” wisdom. If I spent my entire life trying to verify every tidbit that I use in making decisions, I would have no life.

    I don’t think this is true. In fact, you verify (or disprove) those tidbits over and over again when you use them to make your decisions. You may not have a deep understanding of why those tidbits are true or false, but you know that they are true or false from personal experience.

    That balance may include believing some things that, upon further investigation and reflection, I find less than credible. But that sure beats answering “awaiting further light” for every single question that I have not personally investigated.

    I disagree with this. Since most of the things I don’t know I don’t need to know, I’d rather maintain a clear distinction between the things I have confirmed based on my own experience and those I’ve only been told about.

    For example, I used to believe certain things about authority in the church. Now I actually know different things based on my study of the matter. But it was perfectly possible to live a faithful life not knowing what I know now–I proved it all those many years prior to sitting down and figuring things out.

    Still, I would have been better off back then recognizing that my beliefs about authority were not knowledge but simply received wisdom. For one thing, it would have given me a much more generous attitude towards brothers who thought differently than me.

  9. Perhaps if we talked about specifics, we would find that we are not so far apart.

    For example, “received wisdom” that I have never verified, and yet believe and depend on, is that my vehicle gets better gas mileage when the tires are inflated to the recommended air pressure. I have never measured my gas mileage at various levels of inflated pressure (and repeated the experiment several times in order to exclude spurious results coming from imperfect measuring of precisely how much fuel was consumed). And yet I believe what I have been told. And I would pass along that bit of info to my child (thus “championing” the idea), though never having personally confirmed it.

    I agree that the older we get, the more we should have verified of the important things in life. And I surely agree that we should be generous in our attitudes toward brothers who think differently — especially on secondary and tertiary matters (however those are defined). But I can’t help but think there are a lot of examples of things that we haven’t done (e.g. drive our vehicles significant distances with underinflated tires to verify that our gas mileage won’t be as good) to validate beliefs that we act upon. And yet we believe, and act.

    J

  10. Jay,

    And yet I believe what I have been told. And I would pass along that bit of info to my child (thus “championing” the idea), though never having personally confirmed it.

    Do you believe it, or do you merely know that other people believe it? Put another way, would you tell your child that vehicles get better gas milage when the tires are inflated to the recommended air pressure, or only that you have been told that by people who claim to know what they’re talking about?

    I keep my tires inflated to the recommended pressure. But I have no belief one way or another about whether my gas mileage is better for doing so. They have to be inflated to some pressure, and I’m happy to follow the manufacturer’s recommendation. If it turns out that for their own nefarious reasons the manufacturers have been lying about it, and the pressure should have been ten pounds higher or lower, I won’t be shocked or dismayed. I didn’t know before, and I still wouldn’t know without running my own tests. I would just start inflating to the new recommendation.

    I can’t help but think there are a lot of examples of things that we haven’t done (e.g. drive our vehicles significant distances with underinflated tires to verify that our gas mileage won’t be as good) to validate beliefs that we act upon. And yet we believe, and act.

    We do not need to believe in order to act. I do not need to believe that salt causes hypertension in order to follow my doctor’s recommendation to cut back on salt. I do not even need to believe that my doctor knows whether it does or not. I do not even need to believe that modern medical science knows what it is talking about in this situation. I can decide to follow his advice for many different reasons (I don’t care much about salt, I’m curious what a low-salt diet would taste like, I can try it for a while and see if I feel any better), none of which require me to believe anything.

    If someone tells you to take route A to Lexington instead of route B because there is a notorious speed trap along route B, you don’t need to believe him in order to take route A. You don’t even need to determine for yourself whether what he said is true. Perhaps you think it’s not worth the risk, even if it is imaginary. Perhaps you want to make your friend feel good by following his advice. Perhaps you just don’t care enough to expend even the little bit of energy it would take to decide against well-meant advice.

    Some things have significant enough consequences that you should set your course of action based on your beliefs. But vastly more don’t. In those cases, it is better to not believe anything. And for the few cases where it does matter, it is better to figure out for yourself what the truth is, rather than rely on the purported wisdom of strangers.

  11. Some things have significant enough consequences that you should set your course of action based on your beliefs. But vastly more don’t. In those cases, it is better to not believe anything. And for the few cases where it does matter, it is better to figure out for yourself what the truth is, rather than rely on the purported wisdom of strangers.

    We are, I think, using the word believe differently. My use is as the level of certitude required for a liability verdict in a civil trial – that is, 50% + 1. You are using it as the level of certitude for a guilty verdict in a criminal trial – beyond reasonable doubt. Given your use of the word, I would agree that things of significant consequence should be based on well established (personally verified) beliefs, and less consequential matters can be decided based upon any number of reasons, none of which require the certitude you are meaning by “believe”, but perhaps what might be called “best guess” decisions.

  12. Jay,

    My point has nothing to do with certitude. I believe plenty of things with less than total certainty, e.g. that animal fat is good for you.

    But if you asked me whether I believed that inflating my tires to the recommended pressure would give me better gas mileage, I wouldn’t say “I’m pretty sure it will,” or “I’m leaning in that direction,” or “I’m doubtful,” or “Not very likely.” I would say (with 100% confidence!) “I have no idea.”

    And then I would inflate my tires to the recommended pressure.

  13. Perhaps it is semantic, or perhaps not. I think there is reason to trust trustworthy persons who tell me things. And in the absence of a competing, better-verified opinion, to utilize this “received” knowledge in decision-making. And I use the word “believe” (albeit rather loosely, perhaps) to describe how I hold the “knowledge” I receive from them.

    Of course that leaves open how trustworthy the person is; how do you determine their trustworthiness; what about when a trustworthy person is wrong; what about when a trustworthy person speaks outside their expected field of knowledge; etc. Yet I persist in thinking the possibility exists of value in what others say, beyond what I subsequently confirm independently.

    Perhaps my brain is fuzzy, and I don’t distinguish very real differences in concepts. I’ve never studied philosophy, but I have the very real expectation that my brain would hurt before I get very far. Semantics? Disagreement? Fuzziness? I don’t know.

    I need to go inflate the rear tires on my van. (For real.)

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