Einstein Never Said That

Well, it is the start of the school year. If I weren’t certain of that fact, today’s “Convocation” cleared up any doubt. Now that the recession is over, the district can once again afford to motivate us by bringing in someone to give us a kick start. Today’s speaker was very good. Set aside that fact that most research shows very little residual benefit from motivational speakers; it certainly does no harm to have someone remind us of the importance of the work that we do.

"Einstein1921 by F Schmutzer 2" by Ferdinand Schmutzer - http://www.bhm.ch/de/news_04a.cfm?bid=4&jahr=2006. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Einstein1921 by F Schmutzer 2” by Ferdinand Schmutzerhttp://www.bhm.ch/de/news_04a.cfm?bid=4&jahr=2006. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

There was, however, one thing with which I took exception. The speaker presented that quote so often attributed to Einstein. You know the one – “As Einstein said, ‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.’ ” I have heard this same line delivered authoritatively by principals, superintendents, guest speakers and consultants. The problem is, of course, that Einstein never said it. Also, that is not the definition of insanity. It might be a good definition of futility.

Now, if you insist that Einstein IS the source of this quote, then take some time to search for the truth yourself. You might start with this Gizmodo page titled “9 Albert Einstein Quotes That Are Totally Fake“.

So what is the harm in a misattribution? First, when you don’t have one of your facts straight, it makes people question ALL of your facts. Topics such as “Educational Research” are dubious enough without injecting additional suspicion. Also, we run the risk of “group think” when a quote offered up by one authority is then used over-and-over by others without any fact checking.

How about another example? I taught at Mt. Whitney High School for seventeen years. During the last four or five of those years, I would sometimes get emails from people asking for “the complete transcript of the speech that Bill Gates gave at Mt. Whitney High School.” You see, there is a list of  “11 Golden Rules Your Kid Will Never Learn in School” that has been incorrectly attributed to Bill Gates. Some how, the story evolved that it was part of a speech given by Bill Gates at Mt. Whitney High School. I would inform the inquiring party that the source of the list was NOT Bill Gates, and that I could authoritatively state that Bill Gates had NEVER given a speech at my high school.

As you can imagine, some people accepted the truth, while others wanted to argue and present their “evidence” that I was wrong. The “evidence” was always a web page with the list and the contention that the source was Bill Gates, in a speech at Mt. Whitney High School. The “list” persists even today. If you don’t believe me, do a quick search for “Bill Gates Speech Mt. Whitney High School”.

Ultimately, I am bothered by the false Einstein quote for the same reasons that I am irritated that the fake Bill Gates list has continued to find a home on the Internet. People take something that “sounds right” and add the authority of Albert Einstein or Bill Gates to give it extra weight. The falsehood is then off and running, with the gravitas of a cultural icon to carry it along. The REAL truth is available to people who want to know the truth. Let’s teach students to question even those sources that sound authoritative. And let’s question those things ourselves as well.

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Andy Allan

I am the owner-developer of Sciencegeek.net and a science teacher at El Diamante High School in Visalia, CA.