Knowing What Ain't So

Presented at the North Texas Church of Freethought, March 3, 2002

It was Mark Twain who said that:

The trouble with the world is not that people know too little, but that they know so many things that ain't so.

Often it's improved upon to:

It's not what people know that gets them into trouble, but what they know that ain't so.

Even as a child, well before I first encountered this pithy expression, it fascinated me that people used to believe in ridiculous things. It made me wonder what people believe in now — what I believed in — might turn out to be ridiculous. This may be one of the things that set me on a course towards atheism and Freethought. For, as we know, there are a lot of silly things in religion that simply aren't true.

I won't bore you — or myself — with holy scripture and theological doctrines today. Rather, after starting with a quotation I'm going to stick to quotations. Many familiar and well-loved quotations, it turns out, are not quite what they appear. I've already given an example of something that Mark Twain said that was improved upon. It's not quite what he said but it's pretty close. Still, the improved version is now so well-known — and, if anything, sounds even more like Mark Twain — that the original seems garbled.

Here's another example, this time from Winston Churchill (1874-1965):

I have nothing to offer but blood, sweat and tears."
I have nothing to offer but blood and toil, tears and sweat."

The second quotation is what he actually said in his first address to the House of Commons on May 13, 1940. Carl Sagan being parodied in saying "billions and billions" is another example of this. Sagan didn't actually say it that way. He just said "billions" in a kind of drawn-out way and the Johnny Carsons took over from there: "billions and billions."

Something similar happened with these quotes:

Play it again, Sam."

Humphrey Bogart never actually says this in the movie. He just says "Play it, Sam." And how about this one:

You dirty rat!"

James Cagney never said this in his films and denied ever having said it.

Elementary, my dear Watson."

Now Basil Rathbone did say this in the Sherlock Holmes movies. But Holmes never says it in any of Conan Doyle's works.

Still, the words and the ideas are there in these instances even if they're not exact. In other cases the idea is there but the person never actually said it. For example:

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

Voltaire never said or wrote this. Not anywhere. In fact, we know where this "quote" came from. It comes from a book by Evelyn Beatrice Hall published in 1906. Ms. Hall said herself that she was only summarizing Voltaire' attitude about freedom of speech and that "I did not intend to imply that Voltaire used these words verbatim, and should be much surprised if they are found in any of his works."

That government is best which governs least."

Thomas Jefferson never said these things. But they do reflect his ideas and attitudes. They are things that we could imagine he might have said. It's curious to think that in this sense the Jefferson we "know" from his writings becomes more "real" than the real Jefferson! The first "quotation" by the way, was offered as a generic saying by Henry David Thoreau in the first sentence of his famous 1849 essay on civil disobedience.

Taxation without representation is tyranny!

How about this one? This was the rallying cry for the American Revolution, wasn't it? It was said by James Otis (1725-1783) in arguing before a Boston court in 1761 against British writs of assistance. But in fact there are no contemporaneous records of his actually saying it this way at the time. The first appearance of this phrase was in 1820 when John Adams used it to summarize the gist of Otis's argument.

The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.

There is no evidence that Edmund Burke ever said this. The closest anyone has been able to find is that he said that "when bad men combine, the good must associate."

God must have loved the common people; he made so many of them.

"Everyone knows" that Abraham Lincoln said this, and its fits Lincoln's image of a man who did speak of government "of the people, by the people and for the people." But Lincoln never made this statement about God making "so many ... common people."

Let them eat cake.

Likewise, "everyone knows" that Marie Antoinette (1755-1793) said this, though there is no evidence that she ever did. Several years before she was alleged to have said it, Rousseau had written in his Confessions that it was "the thoughtless saying of a great princess."

Sometimes the attribution of words is more accurate than the ideas conveyed by the words:

If a man has good corn, or wood, or boards, or pigs, to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a hard-beaten road to his house.

The second passage is what Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) actually said. The "better product" is there and the idea of the world beating a road or path to those who have it is there. But notice that by changing the product to a mousetrap, with the clear connotation not just of producing it but inventing it, the meaning is subtly changed. The first "quote" is recognition and praise of innovation while what Emerson actually said was just about doing a better job of something. Another favorite Emerson quotation is this one:

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by statesmen and philosophers and divines.

Again, the second item is what Emerson actually said. Clearly, the two expressions mean and imply very different things. The first encourages us to forget about trying to be consistent, as if it is "foolish" to have personal and intellectual integrity and "wise" not to worry about contradictions and hypocrisy. What Emerson actually said was to observe that there can be too much effort devoted to trying to achieve consistency. He would doubtless have been fascinated by Gödel's Theorem. [This is a mathematical theorem proved by Czech mathematician Kurt Gödel to the effect that no completely logical system can be complete in the sense of being able to prove or disprove all possible propositions.]

Here is another example of a mangled quotation:

Music hath charms to soothe the savage beast.

The passage from William Congreve's 1697 play, The Mourning Bride, actually was:

Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast.

Here is an accurate quote:

If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

Isaac Newton wrote this in a letter to Robert Hooke. But it's not as much of an indication of humility on Newton's part as is commonly supposed. In fact, the expression had been used for hundreds of years earlier.

Likewise with:

Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes!

William Prescott (1726-1795) may well have said this at the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775. But it had previously been said by Prince Charles of Prussia in 1745 and by Frederick the Great (a Freethinker!) in 1757, and perhaps even earlier by others.

Then there are "quotations" that are authentic but misattributed. For example:

Cleanliness is next to godliness.

Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

God helps those who help themselves.

Who hath seen the wind?

Many, if not most people will say that these sayings are from the Bible. In fact, the first traces back to a 2nd Century rabbi named Phinehas Ben-Yair. It was picked up 18th Century British clergyman John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. The second is from Alexander Pope's An Essay on Criticism. The third is from Aesop's fable of "Hercules and the Waggoner." And the last is from a poem by 19th Century English writer Christina G. Rossett.

Now, then, who said this:

Anybody who hates children and dogs can't be all bad.

W.C. Fields (1879-1946) didn't say it. It was said of W.C. Fields by humor writer Leo Rosten at a dinner that "anybody who hates dogs and babies can't be all bad." But the expression fit and it stuck to Fields, as did this one:

On the whole, I'd rather be in Philadelphia.

This line appeared first as a joke in Vanity Fair in the 1920's and was associated with Fields after his death. It does not appear at his gravesite.

Go west, young man …

This advice was given in an article by journalist John Babsone Soule. Horace Greeley only printed it. But he has gotten the credit ever since for saying it as well.

Many spurious quotations are simply lies:

I cannot tell a lie.

It's fascinating that this lie about a little boy who couldn't lie was also fabricated by a Christian minister: Parson Weems. He would probably have justified it by saying that his intention was to promote character in readers of the story.

How about this one:

I have not yet begun to fight.

John Paul Jones (1747-1792) is supposed to have said this when called upon to surrender during his engagement of the Bonhomme Richard with the British warship Serapis on September 23, 1779. But there's no evidence that Jones said this. He doesn't even mention it in his own account of the battle. Many other famous — but spurious — quotations seem to have gotten their start in military campaigns, whether through error or design, and those that appealed to people seem to be the ones that survived.

How about these quotations:

I am very sorry that you thought it was too blood and thirsty.

I was on the brink of a great abscess.

You've got to take the bull by the teeth.

To hell with the cost. If it's a good story, I'll make it.

Our comedies are not to be laughed at.

It rolls off my back like a duck.

… it makes the hair stand on the edge of my seat.

I can answer you in two words — impossible!

Gentlemen, include me out.

The next time I send a damn fool for something, I go myself.

I read part of it all the way through.

Anyone who would go to a psychiatrist ought to have his head examined.

A verbal contract isn't worth the paper it's written on.

These are famous "Sam Goldwyn-isms." And all of them were made up more or less deliberately either as jokes or for publicity and then attributed to the famous Hollywood movie producer.

I rob banks because that's where the money is.

Here's a saying much beloved in the business world that's used to emphasize the importance of setting and maintaining goals. But bank robber Willie Sutton said that he never said it, that it was made up by a reporter.

Many things that people know that aren't so are the result of political distortions and "spin," which is not as new as some people may suppose. (Oh for the good old days when government was honest and the special interests didn't buy what they wanted from the politicians!) For example:

What's good for General Motors is good for the country.

This is not what Charles Wilson (1890-1961), the former head of GM, said before a Senate committee early in the last century. What he said was:

What's good for the country is good for General Motors — and vice versa.

Anti-business politicians seized on the "vice versa" and rewrote the statement into an arrogant boast of corporate hegemony.

Consider this quotation:

The Doctor of the Future will give no medicine but will interest his patients in the care of the human frame, in diet, and in the cause and prevention of disease.

Chiropractors have insisted for years that Thomas Edison (1847-1931) said this. Obviously, it's a plug for the doctrines of chiropractic and for chiropractors being the "doctors of the future." But there is no evidence that Edison ever said this.

In many other cases, things that people know that aren't so were fabricated for base and even malicious reasons. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a well-known — but certainly not well-known enough — deliberate smear designed to foment hatred against Jews. Its unknown author(s) intended for it to be believed that it was a secret plan by Zionists to corrupt and then take over the world.

Similar fake "quotations" were used when the more worthy enemy of communism was the target:

The capitalists will sell us the rope with which to hang them.

This appears nowhere in Lenin's writings and is believed to be spurious

Promises are like pie crust, made to be broken.

Lenin did say this, but he was quoting a line from British satirist Jonathan Swift in an attack on his own Socialist adversaries in Russia. That is, he was using it in the same negative sense in which it is used to show Lenin to be an immoral person.

Some spurious quotations have an "all purpose" character. For example, many would-be or alleged world conquerors are said to have said that the results of their machinations will be that their enemies will "fall like over-ripe fruit" into their hands. Not only Catholic clergy, but communist leaders have supposedly said "give me a child for eight years" and they will control their thoughts and actions forever.

Another thing that happens is that quotes condemning Jews, or Catholics, or others are put into the mouths of respected people. So, for example, there "quotes" expressing anti-semitism on the part of Benjamin Franklin and anti-Catholic sentiment on the part of Lincoln. Lincoln has been a favorite target of quotes promoting orthodox Christianity generally. But for all his alleged piety there is almost no mention in his public writings and speeches of Christian doctrines.

Here's another famous "Lincoln quote:"

You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift. You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong. You cannot help strong men by tearing down big men. You cannot help he wage-earner by pulling down the wage payer, You cannot further the brotherhood of man by encouraging class hatred. You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich. You cannot establish sound security on borrowed money. You cannot keep out of trouble by spending more than you earn. You cannot build character and courage by taking away man's initiative. You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they could and should do for themselves.

You can find this "quote" on the internet as one of Lincoln's. And they sound "just like" Lincoln. Except that he never said them. They were written by a Presbyterian minister named William J. H. Boetcker in 1916 and became "Lincoln quotes" after a political group in 1942 distributed them on one side of leaflets that had real Lincoln quotations on the other side.

It should not come as a surprise that deliberately creating fake quotes is a stock in trade of Creationists. Not long after Charles Darwin died, for example, Lady Hope claimed that Darwin, on his deathbed, asked to read a Bible and said:

How I wish I had not expressed my theory of evolution as I have done.

This is an utter fabrication, well showing that prestigious people with impeccable reputations — Hope was the widow of the Admiral of the Fleet James Hope — are not above lying. Darwin's daughter objected at the time, too, saying that "Lady Hope was not present during his last illness, or any illness. ... I believe he never even saw her ..." Henrietta and others denied that Darwin had ever recanted his scientific views. In fact, Darwin's last words were probably: "I am not the least afraid to die." Yet many Creationists to this day continue to claim that Darwin recanted.

Here's one that I tracked down myself a few years ago. Well-known creationist Kent Hovind, in a May 4th 1997 local radio show said the following:

Sexual liberation is also a logical consequence of evolution. After Darwin wrote his book on evolution, he ran and hid. But everyone else went wild pushing his theories. In the 1860's, Thomas Huxley was called 'Darwin's bulldog' because he promoted Darwin's theory all over Europe. Huxley said, 'We've accepted this evolution theory because it gives us sexual freedom.'

I emailed Hovind to ask his source and he pointed me to Aldous Huxley's 1937 book, Ends and Means. So I got the book, which has absolutely nothing to do with T.H. Huxley (who died the year after Aldous was born) or the events of the 1860s. The passage Hovind cited consists of Aldous Huxley's decrying "a certain political and economic system and ... a certain system of morality" that he calls "the philosophy of meaninglessness" and which we would now call nihilism. Huxley links this to the madness of the Marquis de Sade and to the social and political blight of totalitarian nationalism, fascism, and Communism. There was nothing about evolution and nothing that could remotely be construed as advocacy or tolerance of sexual promiscuity.

Manufacturing spurious quotations has been a favorite of others intent on breaking down state-church separation. Usually this takes the form of "proving" that the First Amendment was only intended to prevent the imposition of a government-run church. One fake quote had Jefferson, in his letter to the Danbury Baptists, going on to say that the "wall of separation" was a "one way wall." Fortunately, that lie appears to be told less now but it is probably still believed by many. As Mark Twain put it — an authentic quote this time:

A lie can be halfway around the world before the truth has gots its boots on.

And he might have added that lies leave their dirty paw prints in places where the truth may never get around to mopping them up. So, for example, it is still falsely claimed by some Christian fundagelicals that Thomas Paine boasted:

When I am through, there will not be five Bibles left in America.

It's also sometimes said that Benjamin Franklin wrote Thomas Paine urging him not to publishThe Age of Reason. Quotations from this correspondence are offered, though where they come from is a mystery since Paine didn't start writing the book until 1793, three years after Franklin died.

But let us not be too self-satisfied. As Mark Twain noted — another authentic quote from his What is Man?

When Mrs. W. asks how can a millionaire give a single dollar to colleges and museums while one human being is destitute of bread, she has answered her question herself. Her feeling for the poor shows that she has a standard of benevolence; there she has conceded the millionaire's privilege of having a standard; since she evidently requires him to adopt her standard, she is by that act requiring herself to adopt his. The human being always looks down when he is examining another person's standard; he never find one that he has to examine by looking up.

And so it is that atheists and Freethinkers also know things that aren't so. For example, this "quotation" of Ferdinand Magellan has been very popular and I have seen it on T-shirts:

The church says the Earth is flat, but I know that it is round, for I have seen the shadow on the moon, and I have more faith in a shadow than in the church.

Magellan never said this. The "Great Agnostic" Robert Ingersoll said it in an address in which he supposed that these ideas might have been or should have been in Magellan's mind as he set off on his historic voyage.

Another quotation beloved of those who see nothing of value and much that is evil in religion is this one:

This would be the best of all possible worlds if there were no religion in it. — John Adams (1735-1826)

Adams did say this in a letter to Thomas Jefferson of April 19, 1817, but here's the context:

Twenty times, in the course of my late reading, have I been on the point of breaking out, 'this would be the best of all possible worlds if there were no religion in it!!!!' But in this exclamation, I should be as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly. Without religion, this world would be the something not fit to be mentioned in public company — I mean hell.

Clearly, the "quote" showing that Adams wanted to stamp out all religion was only an expression of his frustration with the fanaticism of the Pat Robertsons and John Ashcrofts of the day. And the "best of all possible worlds" reference is probably related to the then-current philosophical ideas of Leibniz that Voltaire lampooned in his book Candide.

Unbelievers even have a fake Lincoln quote:

My earlier views of the unsoundness of the Christian scheme of salvation and the human origin of the scriptures have become clearer and stronger with advancing years and I see no reason for thinking I shall ever change them.

Supposedly this was written in a letter to one Judge Wakefield in 1862. But the letter has never been produced and there is no mention of a Judge Wakefield in any of Lincoln's papers.

And then there is this:

And yet it moves.

Here is, as T.H. Huxley put it, a wonderful theory killed by ugly facts. Supposedly, Galileo, when forced to abjure the evidence of his own eyes during his observations through his telescope, said this. Doubtless Galileo thought it, but it was a French writer who put these words into Galileo's mouth more than a century after the fact.

So we Freethinkers would do well to ask ourselves — from time to time if not more frequently — what it is that we know — what we think we know — that just isn't so. I suspect that it would amount to lots more than some spurious quotations. But the ways that we come to know things that aren't so will be much the same as the ways that these fake quotations become accepted as fact: though ignorance, through error, through wishful thinking, through the perverse need to make facts conform to our feelings and aspirations instead of the other way around, and, most especially, through our frequent failure to even consider the possibility that we may be misled.

I will conclude with some additional Mark Twain quotations:

It is agreed, in this country, that if a man can arrange his religion so that it perfectly satisfies his conscience, it is not incumbent on him to care whether the arrangement is satisfactory to anyone else or not.

Did Twain say this or not? He did. How about this one:

Always do right. That will gratify some of the people, and astonish the rest.

That's also an authentic Twain quote. Of course there's this:

Giving up smoking is easy. I've done it hundreds of times.

But this is nowhere to be found in the writings of Mark Twain.

It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.

This is an example of something that people know Twain said that he actually did say.

Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.

But this is nowhere in Twain's writings. It probably was attributed to Twain because it was attributed to "a well known American writer" by a journalist who collaborated with Mark Twain on The Gilded Age (1873). This quote is also sometimes attributed to Will Rogers.

I have no color prejudices n or caste prejudices nor creed prejudices. All I care to know is that a man is a human being, and that is enough for me; he can't be any worse.

This is another authentic Mark Twain quote. And finally:

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.

Mark Twain did say this, but he gave credit to Benjamin Disraeli. And keep in mind that the discipline of statistics in Disraeli's day was still in its infancy.

© 2002 by Dr. Tim Gorski