People quote Albert Einstein a lot. That’s absolutely fine. He said lots of profound things and there are far worse people you could be quoting.
There's nothing wrong with hearing an interesting Einstein quotation and putting it on your blog or T-shirt or whatever. But don’t grab stuff from inspirational-quote websites or image searches you’ve done on the words “Einstein”, “genius” and “intelligent”. There’s a couple of minor reasons not to do it and one really fundamental one. Minor reasons first:
Problem 1: Original words, language and context
Take one of the most famous Einstein quotations ever: “God does not play dice with the universe.” Quoted alone this is a bit misleading. Originally he wrote, in a letter to Max Born dated December 4th 1926, “I, at any rate, am convinced that he is not playing dice.”
Well, actually it was: “Ich jedenfallsbin überzeugt, dass er nicht spielt Würfel“ because Einstein spoke mostly German.
Also, to put the above quotation in context, Einstein was not religious. He was deistic and when he talks about God he is not talking about the God worshipped in any religion. In fact, he never really uses the word God in his writings, referring instead to “the old one“ which meant "whatever caused the laws of nature to be this way". So the first problem with quoting Einstein is that it’s often a translation taken out of context.
Problem 2: Accuracy
Check out the following Einstein quotations. You’ve probably heard some of them:
1) Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
2) Everyone is a genius. If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will live it’s whole life believing it is stupid.
3) Education is what remains when you forget everything you learned in school.
4) Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted, counts.
5) Our technology has surpassed our humanity.
Einstein never said any of these things. Or anything close. They’re either fake quotations or quotations originally spoken by someone else. That last one about technology comes from none other than Jeff Goldblum. It’s something his character says in the movie Powder (1995) and while it's a thought-provoking quotation, it’s not Einstein‘s.
Here is an actual quotation from Albert Einstein: “The religious feeling engendered by experiencing the logical comprehensibility of profound interrelations is of a somewhat different sort from the feeling that one usually calls religious. It is more a feeling of awe at the scheme that is manifested in the material universe.“
Notice something? It’s kind of convoluted, right? Well, this is how Einstein actually talked and wrote. Einstein did not communicate in soundbites, he wasn’t witty and he didn’t play with words. He spoke in a very extravagant way with an extensive vocabulary, often meandering and grandiose.
It’s an unfortunate quirk of our culture that we want information to be condensed and compacted into snippets. Politicians know this and they speak in carefully crafted micro-phrases which catch in your mind. But Scientists don't usually talk like this because they aren’t interested in being memorable or witty. They’re interested in stating things precisely and meticulously.
Problem 3: Einstein was a Physicist, not a Social Pundit
Another thing to be aware of is that Einstein didn’t talk much about things that weren’t Scientific. He did occasionally discuss the philosophy of Science and politics, but he certainly didn’t write a great deal on how humans think, learn, study, teach, love, marry or use facebook.
Most of what Einstein talked about was Physics. Obviously...he was a physicist. It's true Einstein was genuinely one of the greatest and most insightful Scientists of the last century, hands down. But that doesn’t mean he was an expert on everything. Nor was he someone we should look to for moral guidance.
Einstein famously tried to get one of his wives to sign a contract of marriage including requests like cooking, cleaning and never correcting him. Ever! He also cheated on her repeatedly...with his cousin.
Einstein was a human being and he had flaws. There’s no reason to quote Einstein’s views on society, education or politics simply because he was Einstein. Yes, he was very clever but he was primarily a theoretical physicist. The best time to be quoting him is when he’s talking about theoretical physics, or, sometimes, the art of thinking about Science.
And the big reason
The mistake people make is to think “Einstein was clever, so the things he says are going to be right.“ But that’s not how Science does things.
Science has no authorities, only experts. If a great Scientist says something then listen and take it seriously because they probably know what they’re talking about. But don’t don’t assume they’re right just because of who they are.
Science doesn’t work like other institutions and people from outside can often find this puzzling. The Catholic church has a Pope, the church of England has an Archbishop of Canterbury, the US government has a President, the UK government has a prime minister, a business has a CEO, FIFA has a chairman, a courtroom has judges, a newspaper has an editor and so on and so on.
But Science doesn’t have anybody at the top. We actually put a lot of effort into making sure nobody is in charge. It’s a grassroots movement achieved collaboratively by lots of people with no official organisational structure. Nobody is at the head of Science and nobody seals discoveries with a rubber stamp saying “this has been confirmed as a true scientific fact“.
Everything happens gradually by unofficial consensus and that’s what makes it so powerful. Ideally, nobody in Science can suppress an idea or boost one. It’s open to corruption sure, and money can get in the way, but the overall premise of Science is simple: the ideas matter, not the people and institutions behind them.
Science has one authority: evidence.
People often quote Einstein because they want to feel justified in their beliefs. They find an Einstein quotation which backs them up and post it - “look everybody, Einstein agrees with me so there must be something to what I’m saying!" This isn’t the reason you should quote someone though.
You quote someone because of the quotation, not the person saying it. The reason you credit the speaker after the quotation is out of honesty, because you didn’t come up with the phrase yourself, not to show off who you’ve been reading.
This isn’t what people are doing with Einstein‘s quotations however. The real “impact“ of an Einstein quotation has become the fact that it’s Einstein saying it rather than the words themselves, which is madness!
Check out the quotation I have at the top of my blog. I’m not quoting it because it’s Carl Sagan and I want everyone to go “oooo, Carl Sagan said it“. I’m quoting the phrase because I think it sums up the aim of my blog in a better way than I could have come up with.
The real problem is that Einstein’s name has become synonymous with genius, intelligence, insight and wisdom. That’s the reason lots of people quote him.
Thing is, the worst way to support an argument is to say “this clever person agrees with me.“ Who cares if a clever person agrees with you??? Seriously. You don’t make a point or conclude an argument by showing which famous and clever person is on your side. This is what’s called the argument from authority and it’s a bad way of deciding truth. You make your point by giving good evidence. End of story.
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