10 April 2013

The emergence of a fake quote?

While reading an article on Brain Pickings inspired by the question of authorship of Shakespeare’s work, I noticed this quote:

A theory should not attempt to explain all the facts, because some of the facts are wrong.

It was attributed to Francis Crick, one third of the Nobel prize winners for work on DNA structure. The publication of the famous Watson and Crick Nature paper is celebrating its sixtieth anniversary this month. It was published 25 April 1953.

I love the idea encapsulated in the quote. I immediately typed it into Google to see if I could find a more exact source.

Nothing. Not in Wikiquotes, either. (I added it as an “unsourced” quote.)

I put it in quotation marks, forcing Google to look for the exact phrase. The first few pages (I went down seven pages deep before quitting) give me the exact same list on the Brain Pickings site. You can tell this at a glance because the words immediately before the alleged Crick quote begins are, “(Arthur Conan Doyle),” the author of the quote preceding the alleged Crick one.

They all seem to emerge from the AKA Shakespeare website in one way or another. This makes me extremely suspicious of the Crick quote. Quotations have a funny way of being conjured out of thin air and attaching themselves to names we know.

For instance, this made its way onto a Facebook page I co-moderate:

The problem is, there are no records of this quote before 2004 – about 49 years after Einstein’s death. And I’ve already given examples of quotes misatrributed to Charles Darwin.

A challenge, hivemind! Can anyone find the original source of the Crick quote? Or can someone who met Crick confirm that this was something that he said? I mean, other than in the AKA Shakespeare book itself, or its derivatives?

(And yes, the irony of suggesting that there is an unsourced, or unverified, or misattributed, or possibly fake, quote in a book about the authorship of Shakespeare’s work has not escaped me.)

Maybe Abe Lincoln said it best:

Update, 1 December 2014: I may have found the source of the quote, and it’s not so much a quote as a paraphrase.

A review of Francis Crick’s book What Mad Pursuit includes this excerpt from the book:

Jim was a little more brash, stating that no good model ever accounted for all the facts since some data was bound to be misleading if not plain wrong.

I need to check, but I am guessing that “Jim” is none other than James Watson. It’s interesting to see how not only the source changed, but the wording becomes shorter. Quotes become sound bites.

Related posts

This Darwin Day, please stop using quotes that Darwin never wrote

External links

AKA Shakespeare
Was Shakespeare Shakespeare? 11 Rules for Critical Thinking

Lincoln meme from here; Einstein from here.

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