Smoking out the bogus: Martin Porter’s “Four Principles of a Quotation”

March 25, 2014

Commenter SBH put me on to this interesting set of principles from a mathematician, on bogus quotes, and how to determine that they are bogus, and most important, how to avoid creating a bogus quote by stripping context or altering the text.

‘After all, a study I once read said something like 86% of all statistics cited in speeches are made up on the spot.’*

I looked up Martin Porter.  What are his principles of quotations?  Who is he, and why should we listen to him?

Mathematician Martin Porter, in the 21st century.

Mathematician Martin Porter, in the 21st century. Self portrait.

Turns out he’s a mathematician who works in algorithms to study language, and a founder of Grapeshot.  Along the way, he grew intrigued with trying to source a very famous quotation attributed to Edmund Burke (confess, you don’t really know enough about Burke to describe who he was, or why that quote might not be his, right? See Porter’s last principle).

Porter wrote an interesting essay about the experience, and about the wide abuse of the real Burke quote and what he’d learned.

At the end of the essay, he posed principles for quotations, two involving how we might hold the necessary skepticism that helps smoke out quotes that are bogus for one reason or another.

The other two, I confess, sometimes are difficult to follow.  One of my favorite statements from George Santayana, in the upper right corner of this blog, stands out of context (he wasn’t writing about history, really), nor have I read the entire book.  Porter proposes very high standards indeed: It’s not enough that the quote be accurately phrased and attributed appropriately to its creator; Porter wants the quote to be used in a similar context.  In his essay on the Burke quote, he notes Burke was talking of factions, but when Ronald Reagan used it, even getting the phrasing right, Reagan used it to talk about arming nations.  Porter suggests such a usage can lead us awry.

Edmund Burke (1729-1797), Irish statesman, author, orator, political theorist and philosopher, who, after moving to England, served for many years in the House of Commons of Great Britain as a member of the Whig party. No, not the same Whig Party that produced Millard Fillmore in America.

Edmund Burke (1729-1797), Irish statesman, author, orator, political theorist and philosopher, who, after moving to England, served for many years in the House of Commons of Great Britain as a member of the Whig party. No, not the same Whig Party that produced Millard Fillmore in America.

Porter is right, of course.

2014 is a federal election year.  Here in Texas we also have municipal elections in May — a lot of opportunities, to vote, a lot of campaigning, and a in that campaigning a stunning wealth of opportunities for people to misattribute quotes, or to invent whole new inappropriate contexts, twists, and diversions to accurate understanding.

We should heed Martin Porter better, perhaps.

Martin Porter’s four Principles for Quotations:

I therefore formulate and offer to the world the following Principles for Quotations, two for quoters and two for readers, which, if universally followed, would make an immense improvement to the reliability of the information available on the world wide web.

Principle 1 (for readers)
Whenever you see a quotation given with an author but no source assume that it is probably bogus.
Principle 2 (for readers)
Whenever you see a quotation given with a full source assume that it is probably being misused, unless you find good evidence that the quoter has read it in the source.
Principle 3 (for quoters)
Whenever you make a quotation, give the exact source.
Principle 4 (for quoters)
Only quote from works that you have read.

* You knew that one was bogus. Right?




One more time: Recognizing bogus history

May 14, 2012

2012 is an election year, a time when we make history together as a nation.  Potential turning points in history often get tarred with false interpretations of history to sway an election, or worse, a completely false recounting of history.  Especially in campaigns, we need to beware false claims of history, lest we be like the ignorants George Santayana warned about, doomed to repeat errors of history they do not know or understand.  How to tell that a purported piece of history is bogus?  This is mostly a repeat of a post that first appeared at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub six years ago.

Recognizing bogus history, 1

Robert Park provides a short e-mail newsletter every Friday, covering news in the world of physics. It’s called “What’s New.” Park makes an art of smoking out bogus science and frauds people try to perpetrate in the name of science, or for money. He wrote an opinion column for the Chronicle of Higher Education [now from Quack Watch; CHE put it behind a paywall] published January 31, 2003, in which he listed the “7 warning signs of bogus science.”

Please go read Park’s entire essay, it’s good.

And it got me thinking about whether there are similar warning signs for bogus history? Are there clues that a biography of Howard Hughes is false that should pop out at any disinterested observer? Are there clues that the claimed quote from James Madison saying the U.S. government is founded on the Ten Commandments is pure buncombe? Should Oliver Stone have been able to to more readily separate fact from fantasy about the Kennedy assassination (assuming he wasn’t just going for the dramatic elements)? Can we generalize for such hoaxes, to inoculate ourselves and our history texts against error?

Bogus science section of Thinkquest logo

Perhaps some of the detection methods Park suggests would work for history. He wrote his opinion piece after the Supreme Court’s decision in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., in which the Court laid out some rules lower courts should use to smoke out and eliminate false science. As Park described it, “The case involved Bendectin, the only morning-sickness medication ever approved by the Food and Drug Administration. It had been used by millions of women, and more than 30 published studies had found no evidence that it caused birth defects. Yet eight so-called experts were willing to testify, in exchange for a fee from the Daubert family, that Bendectin might indeed cause birth defects.” The Court said lower courts must act as gatekeepers against science buncombe — a difficult task for some judges who, in their training as attorneys, often spent little time studying science.

Some of the Daubert reasoning surfaced in another case recently, the opinion in Pennsylvania district federal court in which Federal District Judge John Jones struck down a school board’s order that intelligent design be introduced to high school biology students, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District.

Can we generalize to history, too? I’m going to try, below the fold.

Here are Park’s seven warning signs, boiled down:

Park wrote:

Justice Stephen G. Breyer encouraged trial judges to appoint independent experts to help them. He noted that courts can turn to scientific organizations, like the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, to identify neutral experts who could preview questionable scientific testimony and advise a judge on whether a jury should be exposed to it. Judges are still concerned about meeting their responsibilities under the Daubert decision, and a group of them asked me how to recognize questionable scientific claims. What are the warning signs?

I have identified seven indicators that a scientific claim lies well outside the bounds of rational scientific discourse. Of course, they are only warning signs — even a claim with several of the signs could be legitimate. [I have cut out the explanations. — E.D.]

  1. The discoverer pitches the claim directly to the media.
  2. The discoverer says that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress his or her work.
  3. The scientific effect involved is always at the very limit of detection.
  4. Evidence for a discovery is anecdotal.
  5. The discoverer says a belief is credible because it has endured for centuries.
  6. The discoverer has worked in isolation.
  7. The discoverer must propose new laws of nature to explain an observation.

Voodoo history

Here, with thanks to Robert Park, is what I propose for the warning signs for bogus history, for voodoo history:

  1. The author pitches the claim directly to the media or to organizations of non-historians, sometimes for pay.
  2. The author says that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress his or her work.  Bogus history relies more on invective than investigation; anyone with an opposing view is an “idiot,” or evil.
  3. The sources that verify the new interpretation of history are obscure, or unavailable; if they involve a famous person, the sources are not those usually relied on by historians.
  4. Evidence for the history is anecdotal.
  5. The author says a belief is credible because it has endured for some time, or because many people believe it to be true.
  6. The author has worked in isolation, and fails to incorporate or explain other, mainstream versions of the history of the incident, and especially the author fails to explain why they are in error.
  7. The author must propose a new interpretation of history to explain an observation.

Any history account that shows one or more of those warning signs should be viewed skeptically.

In another post, I’ll flesh out the reasoning behind why they are warning signs.


If Stalin said America is “a healthy body,” why can’t anyone find the source?

March 14, 2012

Joseph Stalin, via Chicago Boyz

Joseph Stalin would have to have been drunk to call the U.S. “healthy,” and to have complimented America’s patriotism, morality and spiritual life. Even then, it would be unlikely. Why does this quote keep circulating?

This has been floating around Tea Party and other shallow venues for a while, but I’ll wager Stalin did not say it:

“America is like a healthy body and its resistance is threefold:  Its patriotism, its morality, and its spiritual life.  If we can undermine these three areas, America will collapse from within.”

I can’t find any source for it; it’s mostly quoted on right-wing sites where people marvel over what a prophet Stalin was.  All requests for a citation in five or six different forums I’ve checked, are unanswered.  Nothing like it appears at the often-checked Wikiquote.  The Stalin Archive holds nothing close to the claimed quote.

Perhaps more telling:  Is it likely that Joe Stalin ever would have called the U.S. “a healthy body?”  Stalin was of a school that claimed capitalism was diseased, and America was infested with a soon-to-be terminal case.  If he called America “diseased” by patriotism and religion, it would be consistent with other statements, but his calling America healthy for patriotism and spiritual life, it’s inconsistent with other claims he made, about America and about capitalism (see Stalin’s 1929 remonstrance to the U.S. Communist Party, for example).

So, Dear Readers, my request to you:  Can you offer the source of this quote, Joseph Stalin or not?

Why would a false claim from Stalin get such a life on the internet?

Update, March 15, 2012:  I’m calling this one:  It’s a bogus quote.  Joseph Stalin didn’t say it.  Not as many comments here as e-mails and comments on other discussion boards and Facebook — no one has come even close to anything like the line above from Stalin.  No source quoting the line even bothers to give a decade, let alone a year, a location, and a citation that would pass muster in a sophomore high school English class.  Tea Partiers, you’ve tried to twist history again — stop it.

Update March 1, 2013: If you’re checking in here studying for a DBQ for an AP class, please tell us in comments, which AP class, and what city you’re in.  Thanks.

Misquoting Jefferson?

February 1, 2009

Statue of Thomas Jefferson in the Jefferson Memorial - Mr. Lant's HIstory page

Statue of Thomas Jefferson in the Jefferson Memorial, Rudulph Evans, sculptor – Library of Congress photo by Carol Highsmith, who graciously puts her photos in the public domain

A commentary from Cal Thomas caught my eye — little more than a few quotes from Thomas Jefferson strung together.  Jefferson seems oddly prescient in these quotes, and, also oddly, rather endorsing the views of the right wing.

From the way the text is laid out, and the brevity of the piece, I’m guessing it’s a radio commentary.

I read Jefferson often.  I’ve read Jefferson a lot.  I don’t recognize any of the quotes.

So I plugged them into the Jefferson collection at Liberty Fund’s Online Library of Liberty, which has a lot of Jefferson ready for full-text searching.

Oops.  None of the quotes scored a hit.

Couldn’t find them in the Library of Congress’s on-line list of quotes, either.

It looks as though Jefferson didn’t say these things that are being attributed to him.

Cal, is that you?

Cal, can you give us citations on these quotes?

How about you, Dear Reader?  Can you save Cal Thomas’s bacon by providing a citation for any of the quotes below, alleged to be from Thomas Jefferson?






There you have ’em, Dear Readers.  Did somebody hoodwink Cal Thomas into thinking these are Jefferson’s bon mots, when they are not?

Shake of the wet scrub brush to Truthseeker.

Below the fold, the complete Cal Thomas commentary.
Read the rest of this entry »

Vox Day: Trapped in a quote mine cave-in

August 31, 2007

Vox Day, who claims to know more than most mortals can even think about, has fallen into a quote mine. (Quote mine defined.) Worse, the mine appears to have caved in.

Vox Day wishes to make the claim that Darwin is responsible for the evils of the Soviet Union. Apart from the prima facie absurdity of the claim, Vox has a dozen highly tenuous links he wishes to torture into supporting his claim, despite their refusal to do so.

This just in: Since I started out on this particular Fisking, Vox has popped up with this gem:

Unsurprisingly, evolutionists are reacting strongly to my column today. They swear up and down that there is no connection whatsoever between evolution and Communism, despite the fact that every single major Communist not only subscribed to Darwinist evolution but considered Darwin to be second only to Hegel as a pre-Marxist socialist figure.

There is no evidence Stalin or Lenin ever subscribed to evolution theory, and at any rate, Stalin expressly rejected Darwin and evolution, eviscerating the Soviets’ lead in genetics in 1920 by banning the teaching of evolution, banning research in evolution or research that had Darwinian overtones, stripping Darwin-theory subscribing biologists of their jobs, exiling a few to Siberia and death in several cases, and executing a few just for good measure. In place of evolution, Stalin backed Trofim Lysenko who advocated, apart from his creationist-like hatred of Darwin, an odd, almost-Lamarckian idea that stress in utero would change characteristics.

So, for example, Lysenko ordered that seed wheat be frozen, and then planted in winter. The freezing, the Stalin-Lysenko idea held, would make the wheat able to grow in cold weather. The crop failures were so spectacular that at least 4 million people died of starvation in the Soviet Union. By 1954 the crop failures were so massive the Soviet Union had to purchase wheat from the U.S., with loans from the U.S. These loans crippled any hope of the Soviet economy ever breaking out of its doldrums, and started the long slide to the collapse of the Soviet Union. You’d think Vox Day, who professes to be a libertarian and a Christian, would approve of the collapse of the Soviet Union by any cause — but he does not approve of the collapse if it came by a lack of evolution theory.

Vox Day never lets the facts get in the way of a rant. (As evidence that Marx was so deeply influenced by evolution theory, Vox notes that a fellow who knew Darwin, Edward Aveling attended Marx’s funeral. If that doesn’t convince, you, Vox says, Aveling later wrote an article saying it’s true, Marxism was based on evolution theory. So take THAT all you people who think Marxism emphasizes collectivism and the state: Darwin’s individual competition for survival is the REAL root of socialism. No, I’m not making this up — go read it for yourself. Then get some facts — read this account, which includes the guest list of Marx’s funeral. There were only nine people at Marx’s funeral, and Vox got the guest list wrong: Aveling wasn’t there. One more Vox claim refuted.)

Back to the regularly scheduled Vox Day quote mine cave-in, below the fold.

Read the rest of this entry »

Flag ceremony update

July 29, 2006

Navy caption: SAN DIEGO (April 2, 2007) - Aviation Support Equipment Technician 3rd Class Danny Ly, Storekeeper Seaman Joe Jackson and Electronics Technician Timothy Swartz fold the American flag on the flight deck aboard nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68). Nimitz Carrier Strike Group (CSG), embarked Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 11 and Destroyer Squadron Group (DESRON) 23 are deploying to support operations in U.S. Central Command area of responsibility. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jeremiah Sholtis (RELEASED) - Wikimedia image

Navy caption: SAN DIEGO (April 2, 2007) – Aviation Support Equipment Technician 3rd Class Danny Ly, Storekeeper Seaman Joe Jackson and Electronics Technician Timothy Swartz fold the American flag on the flight deck aboard nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68). Nimitz Carrier Strike Group (CSG), embarked Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 11 and Destroyer Squadron Group (DESRON) 23 are deploying to support operations in U.S. Central Command area of responsibility. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jeremiah Sholtis (RELEASED) – Wikimedia image

Earlier I wrote about a flag-folding ceremony that is making the internet rounds. I noted that much of the claimed mythology is, um, ahistoric.

There is no particular meaning attached to folding the flag. Comments noted that the ceremony making the internet rounds is posted at the website of the American Legion. I wrote to the Legion’s public relations department, but have heard nothing back. Generally, the information on flag etiquette at that site is solid. Only the flag-folding ceremony material is not top-notch. I would be happy were the Legion to add a note that the ceremony is a sample ceremony. Several sites mention that the ceremony comes “from the U.S. Air Force Academy.” One site even had a link, but the link was dead. I did find a few sources that explained further. The Air Force Academy web site may have featured a flag-folding ceremony at one point, perhaps even the one being passed around. One of the more popular ceremonies featured had been written by one of the chaplains at USAFA. As happens in the military, someone got concerned about the accuracy of the claims, and the ceremony was pulled. However, Air Force color guards had used the ceremony, and there was demand for something to say during the folding of the U.S. flag, at some ceremonies.

Below the fold, at some length, I reprint the “official” story.

Read the rest of this entry »

Einstein, compound interest: Does not compute

July 22, 2006

Earlier, in the thread about bad quotes, bad scholarship and Ann Coulter, a person asked about another quote that has dogged speech writers and investment seminars for years:

I am trying to discern the author of the quote “compound interest is the greatest invention of the 20th century.” Since you mention neither Twain nor Einstein remarked this, do you know who did?? I would be very grateful.

Comment by fact checker 07.11.06 [emphasis added]

Twain’s words are well enough cataloged that, had he said it, one would be able to track it down. Think for a few minutes about Twain’s finance issues, however, and you realize it is highly unlikely that he would have said it. Twain invested heavily in a machine to mechanically set type, to publish the memoirs of former-President Ulysses Grant; the machine did not work, and Twain lost his fortune. He undertook a grueling lecture tour to make money back. Later financial setbacks forced another long lecture tour. It is not probable that Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) would ever have said anything about simple compound interest. It was not his style to invest passively, or for long-term returns.

The line about compound interest being the “best invention” of mathematics, or of the 20th century, or whatever, is more often attributed to Albert Einstein. Google “compound interest” and “Einstein” and you get tens of thousands of hits.

It’s a good line, a snappy introduction to the Rule of 72 for a presentation to potential investment clients or for the introduction to the rule in a high school classroom. I have a short PowerPoint presentation on the Rule of 72 for economics classes, and I would have used the quote — had it checked out. My experience as a journalist and speechwriter urged caution.

I wrote to the Albert Einstein Institute, to the American Institute of Physics, and to other places where people might know obscure sources of Einstein’s sayings and writings, to try to verify the quote. It surely did not turn up in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, nor in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Those specialists in Einstein data and history could not verify the quote (which is the careful way of phrasing it). One fellow I spoke with said if he had a nickel for every time he was asked to verify the compound interest quote, he would have no need for compound interest.

I can say with confidence that Albert Einstein never wrote or said anything about compound interest. While Einstein wrote about a wide variety of topics, compound interest is not among them.

Fatherflot at Daily Kos wrote about this quote in early 2005, after several advocates of privatizing Social Security had used the quote in one version or another to introduce their own remarks. A lot more people read that blog, but no one there could verify it, either. There are several variants on the quote illustrated there. I think that an alleged quote’s lack of veracity is often demonstrated by mutations. For real quotes from real people, generally someone knows the original work and starts writing about what it’s supposed to be — at many cocktail parties a line about “consistency being the hobgoblin of small minds” will be corrected (Emerson said it is “a foolish consistency,” and it is “little minds”), for one example.

Einstein didn't say what this poster claims he said, either.

Einstein didn’t say what this poster claims he said, either.

As I told fact checker, I think the line was invented 40 or 50 years ago. From my checking, I would bet it was a copywriter or speechwriter working for some investment house. We may hope to someday track down the origin of the quote, and if the originator is still alive, ask her or him why the line was attributed to Einstein.

Fillmore’s bathtub runneth over with bad quotes, hoaxes gone amok, and other errors. We just try to flush a few down the drain.

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