Recently my attention was drawn to an issue on social media that I have a feeling many of us may have experienced. A friend of mine had reposted a statement that resonated with them on their Facebook page. Someone else attempted to rebut that statement by using a quote that they misattributed to Voltaire when in fact, the quote came from a neo-Nazi. Here’s the statement that started the exchange.
One of the most dangerous ideas that has come about in the last 3 years is that all points of view are equally valid, and that Average Citizen (YOU) are just as equipped to judge which has merit as anyone else.
“Hear all sides, and judge for yourself!” No, I do not condone the death of Expertise, and neither should you.
I am an expert in very, very few things. But in those areas, my expertise is earned through study, work, experience, and aptitude. None of it comes from attending Google University. But unless you are an expert in exactly the same areas, your opinion is not just as valid as mine. It’s not.
And my opinion is not as valid as experts’ in other fields. That us why THEY ARE THE EXPERTS. So if our leading epidemiologists largely agree that “A” is correct, and a couple of discredited doctors make a video that “B” is correct, our response should not be “I’ll listen to both and decide which makes sense to me.” Confirmation bias exists, and only fools think they are free of it. To paraphrase Asimov, your ignorance is not the same as their experience. Genuinely smart people look for answers from people who are smarter than themselves. Only ignorant people believe their guess is as good as anyone else’s.
The rebuttal to the posted statement was this: “If you want to know who controls you, look at who you are not allowed to criticize.”-Voltaire.
When I saw the thread, my first thought was, “this is why I don’t go on social media,” but then it occurred to me that it’s also a good lesson in the necessity to use and consistently hone the essential life skills of research and context.
Beyond the fact that the original poster had never said you couldn’t criticize anyone; that rebuttal quote is not from Voltaire, it was made by a neo-Nazi.
USA Today does an excellent job of debunking the misattributed Voltaire quote with several sources — including Voltaire scholars who checked his actual writings. They also point out that the origin of the misattributed Voltaire quote was a 1993 radio broadcast by Kevin Alfred Strom. Strom is an American white nationalist and Holocaust denier, according to the Associated Press.
When the source of the “Voltaire quote” was shown to the person who made it, they doubled down and said they had found the “Voltaire quote” in several places on the internet; this presumably made it accurately attributed, although it was shown to be false.
What we all need to keep in mind is that “the internet” is not necessarily a primary source. We also need to remember that we all make mistakes. When someone presents you with proof you were mistaken, the answer is not to get defensive but to take it as a chance to learn more.
Another piece of this puzzle comes from the same rebuttal post in this Facebook debate, which cited a Richard Feynman quote “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.” This is an actual quote by Feynman, BUT this is a case where context matters very, very deeply.
See, that truncated Feynman quote is explained by the rest of what was said by Feynman “science – a.k.a. research – is in the making, belongs to the (unknown, yet to be discovered) future, while expertise is based on the past, with in-built obsolescence”. That adds a whole new dimension to the debate.
This particular Facebook argument had to do with listening to various epidemiologists and trying to determine what makes sense, and the response was to abuse the first Feynman quote to justify … not listening to scientists.
But let’s break this down. Feynman wasn’t saying “scientists don’t know what they’re talking about.” He was saying “Science is an evolving discipline, where information is subject to new discoveries.” The problem is that if you read it off the first quote, it reads like you shouldn’t trust scientists. Read the full context, and suddenly it’s saying you want to trust ACTIVE SCIENTISTS over anyone else.
So when it comes to, say, decisions about how to handle Covid, you do not want to listen to someone who stays mired in one belief. You want to listen to scientists who are constantly evolving their understanding. It’s a semantic issue that Feynman says “experts” in a specific context but he does NOT MEAN scientists who are consistently studying a subject, he means the people who claim to know something but are NOT living and breathing it — all while calling themselves “experts”.
I joked that this is why I don’t go on Facebook anymore, but it’s a serious issue.
A quote can sound great and make a pithy point sometimes, but it does not always mean what you think it does. Before you cite someone, it’s important to know the actual context of the quote that you are citing.
It didn’t take me long to find the context of that Feynman quote, and it completely changes the nature of it. But I knew who Feynman was before I did the research, and I knew full well there was more to a quantum physicist disregarding experts than it seemed at first glance. I knew a bit about Voltaire, but it’s been a long time since college. While the rebuttal post citing the “Voltaire quote” didn’t sit right with me as an example, I appreciated that USA Today did the work for me … and now I also feel like I need to dig up some Voltaire and brush up on him a bit.
It’s also a good reminder to check sources before you share a quote or a meme that lists a quote with someone famous’ name attached. We’ve seen time and time again that on “the internet” attribution can often be incorrect, and just because someone’s name is attached to a quote it doesn’t mean they ever actually said it.
The point that I am making here is that you can’t toss out quotes unless you know them in context and can defend them. Context matters so deeply, and we can lose sight of that in the hopes of “zinging” someone. But use the quote wrong — like citing a quantum physicist as a skeptic of science — and it will make you sound less clever and more ignorant.