7 Things You Think Famous People Said and Did (But Actually Didn’t)

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Misattributing quotes and deeds to the wrong individuals is something we do over and over as a society and that, is insane.

For example, the quote above is not by Albert Einstein, Ben Franklin or Confucius. The quote is found in Sudden Death, a Rita Mae Brown book from 1983 according to The Ultimate Quotable Einstein. Further research reveals that a similar quote was present in a 1981 copy of Narcotics Anonymous. The quotation could have been in use much earlier, but we have no concrete proof of its origin.

We live in The Information Age, but you’ll notice that title has not been preceded with the label, accurate. As Jon Oliver points out below, we’re downright terrible at attribution.

The political examples in Oliver’s video are just the tip of the iceberg. I could study this subject for the next 40 years and still not come close to listing all of the egregious errors that are commonly thought of as fact. Below, I’ll list some frequent misconceptions and give you some tools to sort the fact from fiction.

Don’t Break The Chain – The Seinfeld Method?

When it comes to productivity and forming good habits, it’s all about repetition. That’s the basic idea behind Don’t Break The Chain. You get a calendar and you put an “X” in the day if you accomplished your goal. After a few successful days in a row, you have a chain of X’s. The goal is to not break the chain.

The recurring story is that an up-and-coming comedian asked Seinfeld for advice and Jerry told this person to write jokes everyday using the method described above. Lifehacker even published the story, but the truth is that it never happened. In a Reddit AMA, Jerry Seinfeld calls it “the dumbest non-idea that was not mine.”

Einstein Proves God’s Existence

Albert Einstein is the the hero in many of the misattributions because he’s a recognizable figure. On top of that, Einstein is remembered as a “smart” person. Why would you question the authenticity of the event or quote when it is attributed to such a great person? In the following myth, it is a young Einstein who schools his atheist professor.

Usually passed along in email form, the story starts with a professor asking if evil exists. He posits that if evil exists and God created everything, then God created evil. The crafty antagonist continues to say that we are what we create. Thus, God is evil. A young student speaks up and asks the professor if cold and darkness exist. The student states that cold is the absence of heat. Darkness is the absence of light. Our hero concludes that evil is the absence of God. At the end of this delightful yarn it is revealed that this student with an incredible knowledge of physics is a young Albert Einstein.

Snopes has a decent breakdown on the evolution of this science versus religion tale. There is no written record of Einstein performing this atheist smackdown. Snopes also points to the well documented study of Einstein’s religious beliefs that don’t particularly gel with the story of the professor and the student.

Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History

Beloved “troublemakers” like Eleanor Roosevelt and Marilyn Monroe often find the words above credited to them. Roosevelt broke with the tradition of the “hostess First Lady” and was publicly active with her own career. Of course, married women with careers in the 1930s was not commonplace. Monroe refused work because she was tired of being typecast and wowed the folks of the 1950s with her overt sexuality.

The statement above works well as a quote from Marilyn Monroe or Eleanor Roosevelt. Unfortunately, that’s just not the case. The quote appears in the 1976 American Quarterly. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a student then, actually wrote, “Well-behaved women seldom make history,” in her academic article titled “Vertuous Women Found: New England Ministerial Literature, 1668–1735.” A professor at Harvard, and Pulitzer Prize winning writer, Ulrich went on to write a book with that quote as the title. Why not capitalize on the popularity?

It’s On A Stamp, It Must Be True

As you know by now, that’s not how this article works. In 2015, a stamp to commemorate Maya Angelou was issued with a quote that was not Angelou’s. The text in question is, “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.” This can be found in Angelou’s work and that’s why it was chosen for the stamp. Yet, someone else actually penned it first. Joan Walsh Anglund published a book of poems in 1967 called A Cup of Sun. In it, she wrote “A bird doesn’t sing because he has an answer, he sings because he has a song.”

Anglund reacted with empathy saying, “I think it easily happens sometimes that people hear something, and it’s kind of going into your subconscious and you don’t realize it.”. That’s a healthy and respectful attitude she displayed. Especially in The Information Age, where people shout “First!” in comment sections and media organizations race to post stories before others in order to get those precious page views.

If You Don’t Read the Newspaper You Are Uninformed, If You Do Read the Newspaper You Are Misinformed

Recently, Denzel Washington blasted the media after being cited in a fake news story as a Trump supporter. He used the phrase above, which is most often attributed to Mark Twain. The Quote Investigator has scrutinized this claim efficiently. One 2003 book references Twain as the originator of the phrase, citing his travel book Innocents Abroad. Yet, when the text is examined, the quote is not found.

It’s a wonderful quote that I’m sure many are using because of the current state of media in our world. Unfortunately, there is no direct source showing who it should be attributed to. Quote Investigator conjectures that it evolved by combining expressions used by Ezra Taft Benson & a former Dearborn Michigan mayor.

Curiously, it is also noted that Thomas Jefferson once wrote in a letter, “the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them.” I guess Jefferson is just not as meme-worthy as Twain.

There’s A Sucker Born Every Minute

And, if you believe that P.T. Barnum said that, you may be one. As we have repeatedly seen with other popular quotes, this one dates far enough back that we’ll probably never know who originated it. Furthermore, there’s no reference available to point to Barnum ever uttering the phrase. So how did he become associated with this bit of wisdom?

As with many of these false quotes it’s hard to pin down, but what was more interesting was chasing all the leads claiming he never said it. See, a number of the pages I found allege that one of his competitors actually said it. The story is a pretty amusing read. It centers around one of the biggest hoaxes in American history. Basically, David Hannum bought this hoax, the Cardiff Giant, around 1869 and supposedly refused to sell the curiosity to Barnum. Thus, P.T. Barnum just manufactured his own giant and told the newspapers that Hannum’s was a fake. The legend maintains that Hannum took Barnum to court and delivered the famous quote, not Barnum.

A historic newspaper expert, the author of that amusing read references no sources. Other sites making the same accusation point to his page as a reference. I finally tracked down this post at the Library of Congress. Even using dates from Scott Tribble’s book on the Cardiff Giant, A Colossal Hoax, the legal information analyst who wrote the post couldn’t find court records to validate that there was ever a lawsuit. Also, I spent more than a minute to figure all this out, so what kind of sucker does that make me?

You Can Fool All The People Some of The Time

Of course the full quote that Bill Clinton delivered in the John Oliver video above is “You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” All the quote database sites online point to Abraham Lincoln as the sage wizard who issued this warning, but it has just not proven to be true.

In this case we can trace how the quote was attached to the President, but there’s no record of him saying or writing it. Lincoln biographers and history professors like David B. Parker have searched for evidence to support the connection. Parker points out that the phrase was often used in advertisements, the first found in 1888. Eventually, some of the ads using the line claimed it was a quote from Lincoln. Parker’s article has pictures of many of these ads. This seems to be the only connection. Perhaps he was too busy hunting vampires?

The Truth Is Out There, Stop Horsing Around

Despite the fact that there’s a number of sites spreading misinformation, you can still use the internet to be sure you have the facts. In Howard Rheingold’s book, Net Smart: How to Thrive Online, the author recommends triangulation. Simply put, find at least 3 sources, or web sites saying the same thing independently. In other words, you don’t want the 3 sites citing each other.

Here’s a bonus situation and example, Catherine the Great didn’t die while trying to fornicate with a horse, it’s a myth. Others are quick to continue her humiliation by saying she died on the toilet which is also not true. Here’s how I know:

A) Someone I trust, in my own personal network, told me so. I explored this idea further searching Duck Duck Go, a search engine that doesn’t tailor your results and keep you in a bubble. One of the first articles that caught my eye was The Death of Catherine the Great: Debunking the Horse Myth. Now, about.com is an old school site. They were one of the first sites to really take advantage of SEO and get their results on the top of search engine results. So their motivation for this article could simply be page hits. Let me try another result.

B) Wikipedia also tells me that the horse humping is a myth. Many people are suspect about Wikipedia because anyone can edit it. The evidence on this particular page is a reference to a book called Raucous Royals. I’m feeling more confident to report that Catherine liked to fool around, but she wasn’t horsing around. However, let me get one more to triangulate.

C) Snopes is pretty good about this sort of thing, and they also have a page refuting the rumor. None of the sources on Snopes are Wikipedia or about.com. The page instead cites 4 books, not including the one on Wikipedia.

Done. I have triangulated the truth in less than 10 minutes. Now I won’t sound like an idiot the next time I’m in horsechat.

In cases like Denzel’s fake news, Rheingold also suggests doing a WHOIS on pages to find the owner. An example would be a site with controversial “facts” about Martin Luther King Jr. that turns out to be owned by white supremacists. Now the motivation for the site is made clear, you have context. In my case, the P.T. Barnum story is told by an historic newspaper expert who brokers the sales of those documents. Perhaps he does have some proof, but he wants me to buy the actual papers?

Unfortunately, many web hosts allow owners to protect their privacy and list their own information as a proxy in the WHOIS search. However, you can try to contact the email address listed because in most cases it is a unique address that will forward your request to the actual owner.

If you’re simply trying to validate a quote, be sure to check Garson O’Toole’s Quote Investigator. You trust me as a reliable source, right? I mean all the things in the Brad Neely song about George Washington are true about me, as well as Washington.

Image courtesy of Library of Congress