Don’t be a sucker…
The other day, I saw an amazing quote on a friend’s social media page by an ancient Greek philosopher. Whenever I see a quote that I either love, or hate, I do what everyone does – I check to see if it’s legit. You totally do that, too, right? Never mind, back to my story… So, I start looking for quotes from this ancient Greek philosopher and, not only can I not find any quotes from him, I can’t find him, anywhere. Now the guy that shared this quote is very smart and has written his fair share of research papers. I deeply doubted that he would be unaware of the fact that (SPOILER ALERT) most of the quotes strewn across the internet are completely unrelated to the person to whom they are attributed. On the other hand, that left me with only two possibilities: 1) He shared this quote from his cell phone and it autocorrected to some truly bizarre word that rendered finding the actual author of the quote completely impossible; or, 2) GASSSSPPPP – he’s the ancient Greek Philosopher! I sent him a message later that day, out of a desperate need to know the answer, because, that’s who you’re dealing with here, folks. I couldn’t let it go. I needed to know the truth! “Hey, buddy!” I said, casually… “I was just wondering about the origin of that awesome quote you shared earlier. I couldn’t find the author anywhere.” I see the typing bubbles… He asks, “do you really want to know?” I responded, truthfully, “No one’s ever asked me that before! The answer is yes; always, and unequivocally, yes.” Before he could respond, I hammered out the words required to indicate that I believed it was him. He confirmed my suspicions. He theorized that people would become more engaged in a cool quote written by someone famous – or famous sounding, then they would in a great quote by himself, so, he created someone famous sounding. In fact, over roughly two years, he’d used the ancient pen name more than half a dozen times, to increased engagement, without anyone ever calling him on it. No one knows that this ancient philosopher, whose quotes they are sharing isn’t real – or at least isn’t ancient. Or Greek… No one, that is, except for me.
I want to make an important point here: I fact checked my friend’s quote, even though I believe him to be the type of guy who is unlikely to quote something that was not verified; the type of guy that doesn’t share news stories which are easily debunked. Why? Because I fact check everyone. I fact check my own writing, just to make sure I didn’t miss anything, or lean too heavily on something lacking the appropriate amount of credible support. I don’t place blind trust in anyone, because everyone makes mistakes.
I didn’t always do this. Actually, I started when I was looking to see where one of my favorite quotes came from, only to find that it didn’t exactly come from anywhere. Do you want to know which quote I was looking for? Brace yourself. You’re not going to like this. What if I told you that Einstein never said the “fish quote?” You know, the one where the fish spends its whole life feeling stupid if you tell it that it has to climb a tree, or whatever… I’m not going to bother quoting it perfectly – because Einstein never said it! Someone did say something like it, though. That guy actually wrote a great piece on education and Einstein gets the credit – c’mon people! Didn’t Einstein get enough credit for things that he actually did?! Do we really need to give him some other guy’s credit, too?
Once I discovered that Einstein was reaching out from beyond the grave to use the internet to steal credit for other people’s quotes, I became suspicious of other quotes. It turns out they’re all fake. FAKE. Ok, maybe not all. But, your favorite internet quote? FAKE. If not fake, then, misattributed, which is even more messed up, in some ways (because if the person that actually said it can be identified, shouldn’t they get the credit?).
Okay, but really, who cares that they are fake?
Why does it matter? For so many reasons. First, because we give more weight of credibility to the words of well-respected people. It means more to us if we have Einstein, Plato, Jesus, Michael Jordan, or Mr. Rogers on our side of an argument – subject to the topic, of course; I’m going to Jordan for basketball pointers, not Plato – but, I digress. More importantly, it reveals how bad we are at identifying what is real and what is a fraud. It runs the gamut, from the brief quote, to the social and political articles that proliferate social media.
I suppose it makes sense. The basis of K-12 education is, “I teach you the answer, you reproduce the answer on the exam.” There isn’t much critical analysis, there (note: that isn’t a dig on teachers. They are handcuffed by the system – any decent teacher will readily tell you how frustrating that is). You can tell me that it isn’t really like that, however, I went to law school – I sat in a room full of highly educated people as they struggled desperately to grasp the concept that there wasn’t necessarily a “correct answer.” There were different possibilities; different potential outcomes. They had spent seventeen years of schooling getting straight A’s, because they learned how to remember and reproduce an answer. So, when we leave the classroom, we have been trained to listen to an answer and accept it as truth – at face value. This doesn’t work – in the classroom or in the real world. If we don’t learn how to question, and fact check, we will always play the role of the useful idiot; the tool that someone uses to get a vote or sell a product (or news channel – you pick, Fox, CNN, MSNBC… they’re all selling you the opinion they think you want to hear).
I’m trying to protect your credibility, here. If you can’t at least sort the real from the easily refutable, then you will lack credibility with anyone alert enough to distinguish between the two. Even worse, is when someone – like one of your kids, places a great deal of faith in your words, and believes them, almost, blindly. This person may be devastated when they discover that too much of what they learned from you was based on urban legends, and misinformation.
This whole thing should make you ask yourself how many things you’ve read and just chosen to accept as true. It presents some major issues when we consider our ideological, political, philosophical, and theological beliefs. In the end, it all comes back to my friends question: “do you really want to know?” For me, the answer is yes; always, and unequivocally, yes.
Jeffrey Hoffmann is the founder of RealSchooling.com, Real Schooling.blog, and is a practicing attorney.