On Putting Words in Einstein's Mouth

Modern media being what it is, I should get out in front of this, so: I am guilty of putting words in Einstein's mouth. I mean, go watch my TED-Ed video on particles and waves, or just look at the image up top-- that very clearly shows Einstein saying words that he probably never said. And it's my fault.

Well, OK, I didn't actually put those words in his mouth-- the animator did that. What I wrote is "Einstein himself described [the photoelectric effect] as the only truly revolutionary thing he did." Which isn't really a quote, but a paraphrase. And it's really a paraphrase of something written by Abraham Pais in Subtle Is the Lord, his magnificent scientific biography of Einstein. Pais contrasts Einstein's attitude toward quantum mechanics with his attitude toward relativity with his attitude toward quantum. The closest thing to a direct version of that quote is a letter to Conrad Habicht, enclosed with copies of the photoelectric effect paper and the first special relativity paper, in which Einstein describes the former as "revolutionary" and the latter as "interesting."

Pais also quotes a Nature report on a lecture Einstein gave in 1921, which says:

[Einstein] deprecated the idea that the new principle [of relativity] was revolutionary. It was, he told his audience, the direct outcome and, in a sense, the natural completion of the work of Faraday, Maxwell, and Lorentz.

Pais also goes on to describe:

Einstein’s lifelong attitude to the relativity theories: they were orderly transitions in which, as he experienced it, he played the role of the instrument of the Lord, Who, he deeply believed, was subtle but not malicious.

[…] He was more deeply committed to orderly transition than revolution. He could be radical but never was a rebel.

I have those quotes at hand because I talked about exactly this issue in class yesterday, and put them in my PowerPoint slides (without page numbers, alas, or I would give them here; the book is in my office on campus, and they're not important enough to this post to go get it). I was contrasting this with Peter Galison's characterization of the difference between Einstein and Henri Poincaré, namely that Einstein was a less conventional and more revolutionary thinker, willing to abandon classical concepts more completely. I think this is somewhat at odds with Einstein's own thinking about things, as Pais argues at some length.

So, why does the video show Einstein saying things he never said? Well, because it's a cartoon meant to accompany a script I wrote. Why does the script paraphrase to that extent? Because it's a script for a five-minute video about the history of quantum mechanics, not a scholarly treatise. I would stand by that, though, as a summary of Einstein's thinking about the photoelectric effect, as documented by Pais.

I mention this because of the latest teapot tempest in the pop-science world, namely the accusation that Neil deGrasse Tyson makes up quotes, which started in right-wing blogs, mostly because the quotes in question are mostly direct against conservatives, but has started to get a bit of play from science writers. There are three main quotes that have been singled out as fabricated, one a probably apocryphal newspaper headline expressing surprise that half of schools are below average, the second a politician saying they've changed their point of view 360 degrees on an issue, and the third a George W. Bush line about God, supposedly said to highlight differences between Christians and Muslims.

I don't have a terribly high opinion of most of these complaints. The "360 degrees" line is the worst sort of dumbass "gotcha" journalism, given that Maxine Waters said something extremely close to the line Tyson uses, and the "below average" line is used as a springboard for a stupid "well, what about the difference between mean and median, Mr. Science Guy?" rant, that's narrowly true but pretty much irrelevant. The Bush line, however, is genuinely misappropriated, paraphrased from an entirely different speech. It's not about Christians and Muslims, but a pseudo-Biblical flourish intended to provide comfort in a speech delivered after the Challenger disaster.

There's also a bit about a jury duty anecdote that Tyson has told several times in different contexts, where he gets bounced from the jury pool for noting that 2000 milligrams of drugs is just 2 grams, about the weight of a coin, not a terribly impressive amount. The alleged misdeed here is that he's used different numbers and different coins in different versions of the story.

And, you know, other than the Bush thing, this is mostly inoffensive stuff, that happens because Tyson is primarily a raconteur. Basically anybody who's any good at telling a story is guilty of the same sins as Tyson-- if you tell the same stories over and over, the rough edges get smoothed out, and some small details shift from one telling to the next. If you're primarily a live speaker, as Tyson is, this is probably both unavoidable (memory being a malleable thing) and arguably even desirable (as it keeps the delivery fresh in a way that using the exact same words every time doesn't).

And after a bit, you find that you're guilty of putting words in Einstein's mouth.

So, I totally understand how a lot of this happens. Which doesn't mean that Tyson is blameless-- he's always been a little too willing to latch onto dubious sources for the sake of a good story. The most likely apocryphal "half below average" headline isn't the first example of him repeating dubious lines that are too good to be true, and there are all those complaints about the shading of history in the Cosmos reboot posts. He should absolutely be a little more vigilant about checking the antecedents of the anecdotes he uses. And he should definitely take the misappropriated George Bush story out of his repertoire.

At the same time, all of this stuff is pretty peripheral to Tyson's actual points. Media figures and politicians really are terrible with numbers in ways that aren't unlike the anecdotes he uses, and fiddling with the wording doesn't change that. The context really is critical, here. This isn't really a debate about scientific truth, but yet another skirmish in the culture wars. On both sides. Tyson's too-polished quotes aren't evidence in a scientific argument, they're weapons in a political battle. And so are the quote-fabrication charges against him. There's really no way to counter the scientific pieces of the case he makes against a wide range of right-wing interests, so instead they have to go after his personal credibility.

Which, you know, is part of the price you pay for being a culture warrior. Nobody's likely to come after me for "fabricating" Einstein quotes, because my paraphrase of Pais's paraphrase shows up in the context of a discussion of particle-wave duality, and nobody really has a political axe to grind over that. (There are, of course, cranks who have a beef with quantum physics in general, but they're not all that numerous, or well-connected to major media organizations.) Tyson's fighting a different battle, which involves a whole different set of tactics.

I do wish he was more careful about this sort of thing on general principle-- properly tracing the sources of too-good-to-be-true lines can be a pain in the ass, but it's generally the Right Thing to Do. But even if he nailed down all of his sources perfectly, he'd get attacked for something else, because what's really going on here isn't about scientific or journalistic accuracy, but a broader political fight. So while I hope that Tyson clean up his act a little bit, that's mostly for tactical reasons-- I want him to make it harder for his opponents to find ways to undermine the critically important work he's doing.

More like this

Regarding the worse than average quote, here's a quote from the (UK) Institute of Physics, via the BBC about gender bias in studying physics.

'"We found that nearly half of the co-educational state-funded schools we looked at are actually doing worse than average," explained Clare Thomson, curriculum and diversity manager at the Institute of Physics.'

Given that I haven't read the whole report, it's possible it makes more sense than it sounds like, but it goes to show that people do say it...

Taken from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-25243274

By Ed Rogers (not verified) on 24 Sep 2014 #permalink

Oh, absolutely. If you Google "half below average" you find a lot of snark from atheists and skeptics, along the lines of the Tyson comments being objected to. But mixed in with that are a depressing number of genuine stories where somebody expresses dismay that half of something are below average.