“Apply the Genealogical Proof Standard to Internet Quotes” — Albert Einstein

A lot of quotes get attributed to Albert Einstein. It seems he didn’t say any of the following:

  • “If a man is kissing a pretty girl while driving safely, he is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves.”
  • “If the bee disappeared off the face of the globe, then man would have only four years of life left.”
  • “Evil is the absence of God.”
  • “Computers are incredibly fast, accurate and stupid; humans are incredibly slow, inaccurate and brilliant; together they are powerful beyond imagination.”
  • “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”
  • “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”
  • “I wish I was as smart as Jim.”

These quotes get passed around a lot, but “Frequent repetition doesn’t prove anything.” — Abraham Lincoln (who also posts a lot on Facebook)

“No, Lincoln didn’t say that. I did.” — Benjamin Franklin

Enter the Genealogical Proof Standard(GPS) as a way to weigh evidence. I do lots of genealogical digging, and I find that lots of family tree info posted on the Internet is either unsourced or it’s clearly rubbish (a child born before his grandparents???). The difference between the good info and the bad info is whether the person posting it followed the GPS. Quoting from the official GPS description: “The GPS consists of five elements:

  • a reasonably exhaustive search;
  • complete and accurate source citations;
  • analysis and correlation of the collected information;
  • resolution of any conflicting evidence; and
  • a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion.”

In short, the GPS means you build up enough evidence to say that this is probably true, and the alternatives probably aren’t. It’s not proof beyond all reasonable doubt, but it’s stronger than saying something is merely plausible or that you hope it’s true or you think it’s true.

The problem with the quotes that keeping getting attributed to Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, and others is that they miss on all counts, just like the lesser genealogical contributions posted online.

Take the insanity quote. I’ve been unable to find any verifiable source for the quote. I haven’t found any original sources. I haven’t found anyone who said, “It’s in this book/paper he wrote, which you can look up; see page x.” Nobody has said, “He said it during an interview held on mm/dd/yy, and a transcript/recording is available.” Nobody has said, “It’s in this letter he wrote, which has been verified, and here’s where you can find the letter.” Whether or not my search for a source counts as reasonably exhaustive, I haven’t uncovered a single source that someone could look up. So far, assigning the insanity quote to Einstein falls short of the mark for the first three of the GPS guidelines.

How about conflicting evidence? Sometimes, the insanity quote gets attributed to Ben Franklin, and sometimes to more recent figures. Take a look at the discussion on the Benjamin Franklin Wikiquote page. For the insanity quote, conflicting evidence about who said it is at best unresolved, and maybe even tilted away from Einstein. This falls short of the mark for the fourth GPS guideline.

Without hitting the first four guidelines, I can’t offer up the fifth: a “soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion” that claims Einstein is the source of that definition of insanity.

An additional element of genealogical research that’s useful outside of genealogy is evaluating the quality of a source. The merest rumor or vague recollection can be a source, but they’re not very good ones. A low-quality sources gives you something to check out if it seems plausible, but it’s not strong evidence.

The best genealogical sources were created at the time by someone who was present and well-informed, like a marriage record created at the time. The worst genealogical sources were created long after, by someone who wasn’t there, who got the information from someone else who wasn’t there; the focus is often more on what sounds cool than on what’s accurate. Lots of the Einstein quotes getting passed around online are like the worst genealogical sources.

Why do I care? “Does it matter who said what, if it’s a good quote?” — Dalai Lama

I don’t want to add to the flood of misinformation on the Internet. I don’t like passing around rumor as truth. The ability to draw a sound conclusion is terribly important in the world today, so I’m disappointed when I see a disregard for accuracy, even on something as mundane as a good one-liner. Or look at it this way: if you were playing a trivia game, it’s the difference between right and wrong … unless the trivia game itself did a sloppy job of verifying its answers.

I’ll end on a legitimate quote from Einstein:

Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.” — Albert Einstein

Jim

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