No, Lincoln Did Not Say That

While the social media I use for business are thankfully free of duck-face selfies and zoomemes, they have become increasingly polluted by an even more abhorrent phenomenon: the false quote.

These false quotes are often ensconced in a graphic format, as if the right combination of font and color might lend them the authority of statuary inscription. And they seem intended for virality—since it would be unthinkably selfish to deny one’s social network the benefit of such a great person’s insight.

Lately, I’ve found myself politely informing posters about the fakeness of their quotes. In fact, I’ve become something of a “quote nazi.” So I am making this post not to defend my own indefensible behavior, but to make a case against a phenomenon that I believe may be more pernicious than its practitioners realize.

Intellectual integrity is non-trivial

I appreciate that posters of false quotes are trying to share something good. But I’d suggest that there is a good which takes particular precedence. This is the good of truth.

Unfortunately, posters almost invariably defend their false quotes by claiming that they got them “somewhere else.” To this I am obliged to reply that “somewhere else” is not a reliable source. That is why we have primary sources, as well as secondary sources that cite primary sources.

Truth matters. When we abdicate responsibility for our own intellectual integrity, we feed the economy of falsehood—by which we have all be burned and, if we are insufficiently cautious, will soon be burned again.

Gandhi vs. Drucker

Another problem is that false quotes often invoke authority inappropriately. Does anyone really think Gandhi was especially knowledgeable about customer service? Did Einstein possess special insight into human psychology?

And, anyway, argument from authority (argumentum ab auctoritate for you rhetoric geeks) is actually a logical fallacy.  Things aren’t true just because someone says they are true—even if that person is Ken Jennings.  They are true because they stand up to the clear light of reason.  Aphorisms may point us in the direction of the truth—but unless they have a powerful internal logic, they only tell us about what one person thought.

Motivation for what?

Finally, there is the troubling predilection posters of false quotes seem to have for wanting me to be all I can be and to have my best life now.  It is as though Al and Mo got together at Esalen and then moved to Sunnyvale to launch a Quantified Self startup.

Somehow, I doubt that the problem those of us fortunate enough to be on LinkedIn and Twitter have is insufficient careerism or self-concern. I have a feeling Al and Mo might share that doubt.

So, please, stop claiming that Mark Twain said “The key to getting ahead is getting started.” What he really said was “Never put off till tomorrow what may be done day after tomorrow just as well.” Now those are words to live by.