Questionable quotations

I read them all the time: advice from a famous person, usually long dead, or a founding father offering wisdom from the past.

Take this one, for example:

“I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.”

BenFranklinDuplessisIt’s attributed to none other than legendary physicist Albert Einstein, and it’s aimed squarely at the social media generation, who interact better through devices than they do in person.

Or take this one:

“When governments fear the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny. The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.”

Those are purportedly the words of Thomas Jefferson.

And this:

“The trouble with quotes on the Internet is that you never know if they are genuine.”

The sage (and visionary) words of Abraham Lincoln…referencing a technology that wouldn’t be invented for more than a century after Honest Abe’s untimely death.

Yes, all of these quotations are fake. Sure, they may sound plausible, and even logical (except for Lincoln’s quote!), but the folks to whom they’re attributed never uttered the words, according to “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein,” edited by Alice Calaprice, and published by Princeton University Press, and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, the outfit that operates Jefferson’s rural Virginia home Monticello, respectively.

And look at the recent embarrassing and racially offensive reporting at Bay Area television station KTVU, which reported that the names of the captains of crashed Asiana flight 214 were, among others, “Captain Sum Ting Wong” and “Wi Tu Lo.” What’s worse, is that an intern at the National Transportation Safety Board actually confirmed the names as accurate!

In an age in which phony quotations and fake news stories quickly go viral and are taken as fact, how does one determine what’s real and what’s bogus?

The investigation site snopes.com can be useful. Many of the common quotes that circulate the internet can be found there, and have been vetted by the site’s researchers. Wikiquote is also useful. The site would seem suspect since it can be edited by anyone. On the other hand, that also means that a world-wide army of wiki-geeks are patrolling the site for inaccuracies and deliberate misquotations.

Published compendiums can be helpful, as in the case of Einstein’s quote above. When a book is published, there is a considerable barrier to entry that doesn’t exist on the Internet. Any fool with a computer can put a fake quote online. Publishing a traditional book (not a self-published book!) requires an editor, a publisher and a significant commitment of money. These three necessities conspire to weed out phonies and frauds. A good one is “Quotations to Help You: From Out of Their Minds,” edited by Mel Solon. (I gave a copy to each of the writers at Trade Press Services a few Christmases ago.)

Lastly, go to the source. For example, Monticello.org has an entire section dedicated to what Mr. Jefferson did and didn’t say.

It’s a spurious, questionable, taken-out-of-context world out there. Be careful and do your homework before you find yourself on the wrong end of a fake quotation.

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