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Get smarter quickly by looking every quote you see up on Quote Investigator for a week

McKinley Valentine — 3 min read

Quote Investigator is the Snopes of quotes — if you see a quote, google it + quote in investigator:

It doesn’t just say myth BUSTED!!, it actually traces the development of the false history — when the quote first appeared, how it ended up associated with that figure, how the quote changed over time as it was re-published etc. — so it’s properly interesting.

(Re: the Ghandi quote above, TIL it’s a heavy paraphrasing. What he actually said was:

If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.

The reason I think this matters is not because I care whether Arleen Lorrance (the paraphraser) gets full credit. It’s because it teaches you terrible critical thinking / media literacy etc. skills

This is a quote I saw attributed to Buddha the other day:

You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe deserve your love and affection.

If you’re familiar with Buddhism, you will immediately be like, “wow, that sounds like the exact opposite of something Buddha would say”. But if you’re not familiar with Buddhism — and there’s no reason you should be — you will now be laden with this completely incorrect idea of his teachings, which will throw up all kinds of communication and understanding blocks if you’re ever talking to a Buddhist.

There’s a great example in Wikipedia’s List of Common Misconceptions:

The myth:

Spices were not used to mask the flavor of rotting meat before refrigeration.

How you can figure out it’s not true, even if you’ve never heard the myth before:

Spices were an expensive luxury item; those who could afford them could afford good meat.

It’s not logical for it to be true. The problem is not being mistaken about this one trivial fact. The problem is that if you consume a bunch of these bad facts, you’ll never be able to build up a general picture of what the past (or whatever) was like.

Understanding that spices were an expensive luxury item is crucial to understanding the flow of goods between Europe, Asia and the Americas — if you get that fact wrong — if you get the impression, from the myth above, that spices were cheap, then parts of the history of colonialism are not going to make sense, the story will feel implausible.

Imagine if 20% of the facts you heard about Antarctica were things like:

  • Once a year, scientists from the New Zealand and Argentinian research stations compete in a 100-metre nude swim.
  • When Australian geologists Edgeworth David and Douglas Mawson came to Antarctica in 1911, they brought a pair of kangaroos with them as mascots. The pair escaped and there is now a small but stable colony of kangaroos on the coast of the Weddell Sea.

The individual “facts” are trivial and it really wouldn’t matter if you mistakenly believed them except, in aggregate, you would get the impression Antarctica is, you know, livable. Warm enough for amateurs to swim in the water without instantly dying and with enough plant life to support even a small number of kangaroos.

And being wrong about that would make it very hard to understand many of the true facts about Antarctica (all the stuff people have to do to survive the knife-edge conditions). Your context for them would be all wrong, they wouldn’t make sense.

So this is why I care so much about false fun facts. It’s not the individual fact, it’s that they cripple your ability to develop an accurate general understanding of the world.

Anyway you can’t fact-check every single thing you read, because you have to live your life, but you probably could fact-check every quote you read for the next week.

Quote Investigator!

This piece was originally published in The Whippet #124 – subscribe to get the next issue in your inbox!

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