Yesterday I came across a familiar quote on Twitter:
“I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”
~ Thomas Edison
Then today I came across an equally interesting quote from another historical figure:
“I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”
~ Ben Franklin
With the information age in full swing, I see a lot of this nowadays. Two versions of the truth emerge, each as unassuming as the other.
So are we to just pick one? I guess. Which one do you believe, that’s the real question. And once you pick a belief, are you going to call it knowledge?
Pieces of information, particularly quotations, get misrepresented rather easily. One of the most common scenarios is this: 1) somebody hears a quote that they like, then 2) they change the wording to make it more clear or snappy to themselves or others. It doesn’t take a particularly deceitful or vain person to do it. I’m sure I have. That’s why you see:
“A rose is but a rose by any other name.”
much more often than
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
…as it is worded straight out of Romeo and Juliet.
Likewise, you’re much more likely to know
“Religion is the opiate of the masses.”
~ Karl Marx
instead of the more cumbersome but more accurate phrase
“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
…which of course is not how it appears verbatim in Marx’s Contribution to Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. The work was in German.
And just what is that stuffy-sounding title anyway? I thought our famous opiate-religion quote was from Marx’s better-known and more snappily-titled work, The Communist Manifesto. I was so sure. Where did I “learn” that?
Culture prefers to embrace the quotable, the snappy, the palatable. Accuracy be damned. If the quoter thinks he can do better, he probably will. After all, for what purpose do we relate these clever quotations to other people anyway? Let’s be honest — is it to provide an accurate history lesson, or to sound clever and make people smile? I know which one is more gratifying to me. It’s okay, poor Karl will never know.
Often a bastardized quote retains its original meaning, but it is still a falsehood. You might even call it slander. You’re saying somebody said something that they didn’t say. Emerson is a frequent victim of this.
I wonder who will be taking liberties with our own words (and deeds) once we’re dead and unable to do anything about it.
Now, I am pretty sure it was indeed Thomas Edison who quipped about the 10,000 failures, but the truth is I don’t really know. I think I know, but my knowledge is only hearsay.
I am confident that if I were to trace the sources back further I would become more and more sure that it was Edison. He was known for his unmatched persistence, and this quote was a reference to his efforts to create a working light bulb. Yes that’s it. Or at least that seems to be the impression I have.
Trouble is, I don’t remember exactly where I got that impression. Somewhere along the line I guess I bought it, but between you and me I don’t remember where, and I definitely can’t find the receipt.
The only real source, the industrious inventor (or the maybe bespectacled kite-flyer) is dead and gone, completely irretrievable. So all we’re left with is a squabble over the evidence.
Of course I never met the man himself, I’ve just collected a lot of hearsay about him. Confidence is all I can really ever have. I can always find more backup for my belief, ideally from smarter and more scholarly people. I could probably gather so many matching opinions that there would be no doubt in my mind that it was indeed Edison who uttered that cheeky phrase many years ago. But no matter how much evidence I collect, it is nothing but the best guesses of other people — hand-picked because they agree with mine — and their product can never amount to more than a very strong belief. If I gather my hearsay from established and official-looking sources — university texts with big words, or soundbytes from people with PhDs — then I may be able to convince myself (and others) that I actually know for sure.
Yet we can so easily convince ourselves that we know something without doubt, so much so that we’d often rather argue the point with someone else than apply a “maybe” to our claim.
Warning: This Might be Complete BS
Maybe “maybe” is the way out of this conundrum. It does seem to be the responsible way. But it’s just so weak. How do you inspire people with, “It is possible that the great Ben Franklin once said ‘A penny saved is a penny earned.’ Well, it is possible that he was great.”
Obviously, to communicate anything, we have to cheat a little. To some degree, we have to call our opinions facts. But maybe it wouldn’t hurt to remember that there is an asterisk next to everything we say — fine print beneath all spoken and written statements that stipulates, “Warning: This might be complete BS.”
Writer Robert Anton Wilson, self-described as “agnostic about everything” is fond of saying “The universe contains a maybe.” I think that’s a good motto. There is an interesting paradox: whenever you state a fact, qualifying it with a “maybe” instantly makes it more accurate.
The word agnostic doesn’t need to refer to belief in God. Any belief will work. It could apply to the belief that saturated fat is bad for you, or that going back to school isn’t practical at your age, or that you’re not cut out for daily meditation practice. We all build a whole mental environment for ourselves out of beliefs that feel every bit as firm as facts. Not that there’s really a difference between the two.
To take an agnostic stance isn’t deciding not to take a stance, it’s to admit to yourself that somehow, through all the unseen biases and illusions in life — not to mention the fallibility conferred simply by being human — we can’t really be in possession of the truth.
The Objectivity Myth
Science is very helpful. I am a big fan. What it’s good for is removing personal doubt from certain beliefs by convincing you that enough other people — particularly smart people in labcoats who are good at removing biases and testing assumptions — have come to the same conclusion, and therefore you can safely operate with that belief.
The scientific method works by examining a question, stating an existing belief (called a hypothesis), then testing that belief many times to see if it is still worth believing. Eventually, when something has been tested enough, we may become confident enough to add it to what we call the body of human knowledge, which we can all safely draw from in the future. Once we anoint it with the prestigious title knowledge, we tend to remove any maybes from our thoughts about it.
We use science to add to a growing, collective model of the universe that seems to exist outside of any one individual. Over the centuries, many different humans from many different backgrounds have contributed their conclusions to it. As time moves along, new discoveries refine it, and our understanding of the universe becomes more complete and less mysterious.
Science is supposed to be an objective collection of facts, free from individual biases and opinions, because it wouldn’t be science if a lot of different people didn’t come to the same conclusion. Watching the sun rise, you are probably aware that it isn’t really rising and setting per se, it just looks like it from our viewpoint on the surface of the earth. We know the earth is spinning, so the sky appears to spin around us. But we can think about it “objectively” and picture a blue marble spinning and revolving around a yellow ball, though we’d never really see that through our own eyes.
Objectivity, as rock-hard and external as it seems, is really a fallacy. It’s an abstraction that can only be applied by a fallible human being from his or her own subjective viewpoint. As nice and revealing as it would be, we just can’t step out from behind our eyeballs and take an objective look.
That’s okay though, it doesn’t change things all that much. I don’t think it will turn your world upside down. Life will still present itself in the same way it always has, and as I said, we have to cheat a little and pretend for the most part that we’re dealing in facts, otherwise we couldn’t function. We’re used to that anyway. In terms of practical day-to-day operation, the only real difference is your awareness of an ever-present, blinking asterisk, appended to every statement of fact and certainty.
When I remember to think like that, I experience a few differences in interacting with people. The main one is that I bite my tongue whenever I’m about to say something along the lines of “Let me tell you how it is.” I remember that no matter how I word it, I’m never able to offer anything more than “Here’s how I see it.”
And it’s strangely liberating. Finally I can be correct.
Photo by aloshbennett