Friday, January 07, 2011

Skeptically Fact Checking Quotes & Misquotes

I belong to a men’s discussion group in my little development community located between Potomac and Rockville Maryland. We meet about every 2 months or so to discuss a book or topic that we’ve agreed on. These meetings grew out of a women’s community book club meeting that my wife and others started 10 years or so ago. They happily read novels once a month and in December invite spouses to a large Xmas party in which no book is discussed. Well they did have some at the beginning like “Killing Pablo” and “Freakanomics” which they figured the guys would like to discuss. But mostly it has been just a time for chatting. But a number of us enjoyed the exchange of opinion enough that the idea of our own discussion club was broached at several December meetings. Well when I retired in 2009 I had enough time to organize a discussion group. Knowing that some members were conservative, relative to me at least, I chose a pretty centric book Andrew Bacevich'sThe Limits of Power": The End of American Exceptionalism” for the first meeting at my house (with some refreshments supplied). Bacevich is a Vietnam and Gulf War veteran, West Point graduate and self-described conservative. He sees our political system as busted and argues that the country’s founding principle — freedom— has become confused with appetite, turning America’s traditional quest for liberty into an obsession with consumption, the never-ending search for more.
Not everyone had or read the book but I showed a 30 minute video segment from Bill Moyers’ show. We stopped to discuss the video as it played and had enough interest to organize later meetings which discussed Sustainability using Jared Diamond's Collapse, reasoning using Blink! and a Fall meeting on China's Future which used a series of articles.
The meetings are interesting enough and over time the divide between liberal-progressive and conservative postures has moved to the foreground. One noticed people disparaging a quote from Senator Bernie Sanders and others citing “data” from Fox News. Religion and religious belief are not direct topics, but some strong aspect of belief that one sees in such discussions seems to have surfaced or at least be close to the surface of people’s stance. The evasion, misdirected reason and phrasing at times reminds one of G W Bush style of explanation. I’ve read that on being asked if he was disappointed on the way things were going in Iraq, he responded with; "I wouldn't say I was disappointed, but that isn't to say I am appointed either".
Over time email discussions, before and between meetings, has been sprinkled with “quotes” by famous people that aren’t accurate quotes. Perhaps you’ve seen them. They usually start with someone saying “If you don’t learn from history, you are doomed to..” and the rest is a forward quote started somewhere on the internet. The latest one I saw was entitled “What has been proven we again need to learn” and the message said:
So what have we learned in 2,065 years?
"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 becomes bankrupt. People must again learn to work, instead of living on public assistance." Cicero -55 B
It concluded with this “Apparently nothing, nothing at all.”
To me it is apparent that the relayer and original sender had not learned to be skeptical of quotes received via email. I looked the quote up, since Cicero is a bit of a personal favorite and it didn't look familiar. I found this explanation.
Quote from Cicero of Ancient Rome about Balancing the Budget, Reducing Public Debt, and Curtailing Foreign Assistance-Truth! or Fiction! It’s mostly Fiction…..
Summary of the eRumor:A forwarded email with a quote dating back to 55 B.C. from Cicero of Ancient Rome about balancing the budget, reducing public debt, and curtailing foreign assistance.
The Truth:This alleged quote from Marcus Tullius Cicero that began circulating on the Internet in October, 2008, is based on a true statement from the great Roman orator, but someone added a lot to it to make it match some of what the United States was facing economically.
The actual quote is: "The arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, and assistance to foreign hands should be curtailed, lest Rome fall."
Another popular quote relayed to me from a discussion group member was a mixed list of forwarded email with several quotations from Thomas Jefferson relating to the economy, democracy and government. But several of them are not his or misquoted according to the Jeffersonian Cyclopedia and

As Thomas Jefferson/misquotes says "Misquoting Thomas Jefferson seems to be a popular right-wing pastime". An example of this is:
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."-Unproven! This quote was not found in the Jeffersonian Cyclopedia
It’s also something of a truthiness phenomena. Ideological people believe that this should have been said. It’s consistent with their beliefs and this doesn’t need checking. There is also the phenomena of hiding one’s own small message within a quote. One example of a such a misquote is:

"To compel a man to subsidize with his taxes the propagation of ideas which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical."-
This is misquoted! The correct quote doesn’t’ mention taxes or subsidization "To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical. "
Well the list goes on with misquotes from Teddy Roosevelt, John Locke etc. I check such quotes (on sites like ) since it is the analytical thing to do and there seems to be a concerted effort to misrepresent things and create urban legend - fictional story, told as truth, that reaches a wide audience by being passed from person to person. This seems to be a growing viral phenomena.
In a skeptical attitude I take guidance from Thomas Jefferson in “Notes on the State of Virginia”- "Reason and free inquiry are the only effectual agents against error."
And now there’s a new book by Oxford University Press – “They Never Said That.” It’s a collection of famous misquotations exposed as adaptations of comments or fabrications. They range from Napoleon's "Not tonight, Josephine" to Sherlock Holmes's "Elementary, my dear Watson", which was an adaptation of a mere "elementary". And as they say for the record, no one ever said "Beam me up, Scotty." Fact checking the Bible remains however beyond such efforts.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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