Are internet polls valid?

Internet pollHow valid are internet polls? Are they credible for making serious or significant decisions, or merely as general – even vague – indicators of intent? Are they equivalent to paper (and phone) surveys?

No. At least that’s what many experts say. Yes, they can be cost-effective, and good tools to engage the community. But like online petitions, they seldom have sufficient controls that restrict access to the relevant respondents. Anyone with a basic knowledge of how the internet works can easily bypass the limited security and vote numerous times. Often all it takes to get another vote is deleting cookies in your browser tools. More sophisticated users can create voting bots that automate the process.

Time poll hackedYou can read many articles on how to easily hack polls and cheat them. Some poll hacking is actually quite entertaining and imaginative, like the hack of the 2009 Time poll on the most influential people. The point is that polls are vulnerable to a variety of techniques. As one programmer noted about the Time poll:

“I took a look at the process of voting with a very basic set of tools on Firefox: Firebug and LiveHTTPHeaders. What I found is that when you submit the rating, it calls another page and passes a key, the rating, and the poll information through the URL to the page, like so:
http://www.timepolls.com/contentpolls/Vote.do?key=eba3a55e955bc93ade4fc820649cde04&rating=9&id=1857552&pollName=poy2008
Theoretically, then, you could hit this page as many times as you wanted with any rating you wanted, and drive up a candidates’ score. Though one would expect that Time would have figured that anyone could game the system, it’s easy for a programmer to forget that what they don’t intend for public viewing may still be visible, and that they always need to check to ensure that the data they expect is the data they are getting.”

Generic online polls are easy to create and many are free – this makes them attractive to businesses, media and political groups that don’t have the resources to do phone or door-to-door surveys. How many of these instant polls are actually mining participant data can’t be determined, but you have to expect the companies to get some return for a “free” service. Some media clearly use polls not as a count of anything specific, but rather as a measure about how engaged people are on an issue – and how much attention they are paying to that particular media’s coverage of it.

As one Australian study concluded,

“…online polls cannot be considered as an alternative to using paper based surveys. The independent sample t-tests results obtained for the questions administered using a paper based survey and those through an online poll showed that in the majority of cases that there was significant difference between the means. The implication is that online polls cannot be used to survey a cohort of people replacing the more costly paper based survey.

Online polls and surveys are generally open to anyone with an internet connection. Similar to clicking the Facebook “like” button, most online polls simply count clicks, but don’t qualify them by demographic – gender, region, sex, age, income or anything else that might matter. While some may believe 12 and 13-year-olds should be able to vote for any issue, they are not really old enough to appreciate the many facets of any political or social issue. But how do you tell if a vote was cast by a child or an adult?

Unless you have qualifying questions that ask personal information to identify the participant as belonging to the target demographic you need, you can’t distinguish between valid and invalid votes. That makes them all invalid.

Everyone on Facebook knows that the count of “likes” is irrelevant because Facebook lacks a corresponding “dislike” button to provide balance. Without that, the number of likes or followers has to be measured against Facebook’s almost one billion subscribers. Having 1,000, even 100,000 “likes” is a small percentage of the total possible. But even with millions, you have no way of qualifying those “likes” by any meaningful categorization. Yes, Facebook can do it, but they’re not giving the important data to users free. Besides, when it comes down to it, “likes” may make the user feel better and more popular, but they don’t add up to much else than self-importance.

It used to be the count of page hits that people boasted about. That quickly ended when website owners started putting “counters” on pages that faked the numbers, or started with high numbers. To get a real picture of website use today you need sophisticated tools like Google Analytics that identify time spent per page, whether the page was visited by a search bot or a human, whether the user went to other linked pages within that site, the search terms used to land on that page, etc. Online surveys without that sort of statistical analysis are much like the old page count numbers of the 1990s.

Some online petitions and polls even allow the same person to digitally “sign” or vote more than once. Some petitions allow participants to be “anonymous” to others (which clearly defeats the purpose of a petition as a tool of democracy). Again, that opens questions about validity and credibility. Anonymous online comments or petition signatures have no credibility in the democratic process.

Because these petitions invite comments, it’s not uncommon for people to use them as sounding boards for comment and griping, rather than for their intended purpose of gathering support for a particular position. Bitching about the state of government may be stress-relieving, but it is not relevant to the petition and dilutes the intended message.

Any online petition has to be carefully combed for duplication and repetition of names. Even once these are winnowed out, how can anyone determine the age or location of the signatory unless that information is required when signing and provided as part of the presentation? How do the presenters insure the remaining names are valid in respect to the subject of the petition? This is one reason why paper petitions still have considerably more validity than online ones.

Crazy pollsI have voted in online polls and surveys about American politics and presidential races. I’m a Canadian so my vote, my choices should be meaningless, yet there were no qualifying questions posed to restrict access to Americans of voting age. What if the Chinese government took a serious interest in the American presidential race and used US online polls to sway the results towards Chinese goals? Why not? If a poll by one of the two parties asked whether the US Army should be disbanded, wouldn’t it be in the national interests of, say, Iran, China, North Korea, Russia or Syria to push the poll numbers up towards yes and get that onto the candidate’s platform?

Could US policy be shaped by such polls? Not yet. At present there’s a good level of skepticism about online polls among politicians and their strategists. Making a claim that “70 percent of Americans want to disband the army” based on an internet poll would be not only incorrect, but stupid.

Similarly, if we run a poll asking if school should be two hours shorter and we get 12,000 yes votes, and 3,000 no, should school boards seriously consider reducing school hours? What if you found out 11,000 of those yes votes were cast by students under the age of 18? Would that affect how the poll was perceived by educators and administrators? Of course. Qualifying data is always necessary to validate the results.

Have an opinion on something? Anything? There are

On Sodahead, a popular opinion site, here’s the latest series of polls you can vote on, taken from the front page:

Do Father-Daughter Dances Promote Gender Discrimination?
Arnold Schwarzenegger Releases Book Trailer: Are You Interested in Reading His Memoir?
Will J.K. Rowling Find Success Beyond ‘Harry Potter’?
New Studies Cite Stronger Link Between Soda and Obesity: Do You Drink Soda?
KFC Closes Restaurants in Pakistan Amid Protests: Should U.S. Retailers Get Out of the Middle East?
Is Vogue Featuring Domestic Violence On Its Cover?
Which Show Are You Rooting for to Win the Emmy for Best Comedy Series?
Are Celebrity Video Games Awesome or Annoying?
Which News Anchor is Least Likely to Lie to Viewers
What were you most excited to leave behind after high school?
Do You Multitask at the Movie Theater?
Does Kanye West Have a Sex Tape?
Are These GPS Shoes Wonderful or Weird?

Perhaps it’s just me, but whenever I visit this site, I keep asking myself “Who cares?” Were these questions created by bored 15-year-olds? Any number of irrelevant, pointless, puerile polls are available online to people who want to express an opinion, but face it: the results aren’t going anywhere because NO ONE CARES about the results. They’re just there to make you feel engaged, let off steam, and think you’ve contributed to something.

For any opinion poll to be valid, it needs to meet certain crucial scientific criteria, including sample size. Most online polls don’t meet any serious selection criteria at all, which means they’re simply for entertainment, like horoscopes.

What is a valid sample size that gives a result meaning? One percent? Ten? Twenty five? What is the effective sample size for, say, Collingwood, with a population of 20,000?

Let me quote at length from an answer on how polls have to be conducted and what sort of sample size is relevant:

You have a two part question – but you didn’t realize it. The question, which you asked, is: “What should my sample size be for this test?”

If you go to the Sample Size Calculator website (www.berrie.dds.nl/calcss.htm), you can find this:

The parameters you are setting are:
1) Population – the number of people in the world who will be seeing your website. Let’s assume that your population is “everyone in the world.” So, if we use a very large number, say, 1,000,000, we will calculate the maximum sample size needed.
2) Confidence – this is how sure you are going to be that the results of your sample reflect the true population. The higher the number, the larger the sample size. This is the “certainty” of the results. Customarily for most marketing work, 95% confidence is ample. The default in the website is set at 0.95.
3) Margin – This is how much error you are willing to allow. If you allow 5% error, that means that in a sample size of 100, if the results are 50 clicks, the true number of clicks could be between 45 and 55 clicks. This is the “precision” of your test. The small this number, the larger the sample size.
4) Probability – this is the value of the result you expect to get. For instance, if you expect to get 50 clicks out of 100 views, this value is set at 0.5. Of course, most of us don’t know this value. But the good news is that setting it at 0.5 yields the largest sample size. If the number of clicks is 20 or 80, the confidence increases for the same margin or the margin decreases for the same confidence. And this is a good thing.

Sample size, of course, determines cost of the test. In your case, this is time. If we use the parameters of a population of 1,000,000 with 95% confidence for 5% margin of error with a probability of 50%, then the sample size is 385. For a 1% margin, it’s 9517. You are at about 1.45% now. That means that you are within 65 of the true population result. Additionally, assuming the number of views are pretty close, this means that if the results of your test can tell the difference between the two websites as long at the results are different by more than 65.

The second part of the question – that you didn’t ask – is how do I determine if the two results are really different. For this, you do another test – a Chi-squared test. You have a hypothesis that the two results are the same versus the alternative that they are different. For the test, we look at the observed values versus “expected values.” Expected values are what we’d get is we added the total clicks for both tests and divided by total views and then multiplied by the views for each:

3760/9060 = 0.415
Expected values
4550 * .415 = 1888
4510 * .415 = 1872

Divide the difference of the expected values squared by the expected value and add the two values:

(2010 – 1888)^2/1888) = 7.883
(1750 – 1872)^2/1872) = 7.951

Sum is 15.834. Using a Chi-square table like at: http://www.richland.edu/james/lecture/m170/tbl-chi.html

If we set our confidence at 95%, we use 1 – .095 = 0.05. Our degrees of freedom are calculated by subtracting 1 from the number of proportions in our test: 2-1=1. So, for 95% confidence, we test the value of 15.834 against 3.841. Since 15.834 is larger, we reject our hypothesis that the two results are the same and accept the alternative hypothesis that they are different – with a much greater than 95% confidence.

So, as Nelson (nelsonm) stated in about 20% of the space, you’re done. Looks like version A is the best with a greater than 95% confidence.

Using the sample size calculator mentioned above, here’s what I calculate for a reasonably accurate survey for Collingwood. Based on a population of 20,000, a confidence level of .95, margin of .05, and probability of .50, the minimum sample would be 378 to get a reasonably accurate assessment.

That’s a fairly small number. But how can one determine the numbers to be punched into the various parts of the equation? What’s the confidence level, margin of error? Change the margin of error to 0.01 – a mere 1% error of margin – then you need a sample size of 6,491. Which number do you change to account for duplicates, outside (irrelevant) votes or votes made by children?

And let’s not be fooled: online polls can be and have been the target of special interest groups who want to express their own agenda. Election polls are particularly vulnerable to this sort of nefarious activity.

Journalists have to be particularly suspicious of online polls. The National Council on Public Polls (NCPP) provides 20 questions a journalist should ask about poll results. Among these is:

How were those people chosen?
The key reason that some polls reflect public opinion accurately and other polls are unscientific junk is how people were chosen to be interviewed. In scientific polls, the pollster uses a specific statistical method for picking respondents. In unscientific polls, the person picks himself to participate.

In other words, self-participation is unscientific. A bit further down the page, it notes,

But many Internet polls are simply the latest variation on the pseudo-polls that have existed for many years. Whether the effort is a click-on Web survey, a dial-in poll or a mail-in survey, the results should be ignored and not reported. All these pseudo-polls suffer from the same problem: the respondents are self-selected. The individuals choose themselves to take part in the poll – there is no pollster choosing the respondents to be interviewed.

Governments cannot govern by poll. That’s not leadership. But attempting to govern by internet poll is not merely foolish but potentially dangerous. There is little if any way to determine the source of the votes. You might as well govern by magic ball or coin toss.

So when I read a statement like, “A community poll has shown that 7 out of 10 residents support the one community centre concept” I have to ask, who did the poll, where, when and how was it conducted? That statement turns out to be based on the results of an Enterprise-Bulletin online poll, which had approximately 200 results – 200 unqualified, unscientific results. As pointed out in the quote above, a sample size for Collingwood to get a reasonable assessment of public opinion would be at least 378 QUALIFIED votes. Qualified means a resident or taxpayer, of majority age, who understands the question being posed.

Ipsos-Mori research
Who conducts the poll and who provides the results is also important. Voters on the left don’t trust polls produced by voters on the right and vice versa. Some media are trusted to be objective, others – Fox and Sun News, for example – will always be suspected of having a bias towards their particular political slant. And the majority doesn’t trust the government to accurately and objectively present figures.

My final point has to do with the questions themselves. Asking “Do you like ice cream?” is asking for a general personal opinion and really doesn’t need more choices than “Yes, No, Sometimes.” A more specific question would be, “Do you like butterscotch ice cream?” Ice cream manufacturers are not going to change their business plans based on these rather vague questions, however. They might pay more attention to a question asking participants to select from a list of flavours not currently made, but one which they would like to see available.

Asking “Should we build a new town hall?” is an iceberg question: it hides a larger mass of questions below it: “What will it cost?”, “Will it raise my taxes?”, “Who will benefit?”, “Why do we need one?”, “Can the old town hall be refurbished?”, “when will it be built?,” “where will it be built?”and so on. Participants need answers to all those hidden questions before they can properly answer the seemingly simple question posed about building a new town hall. Otherwise, the answers on that poll are essentially meaningless.

A more reliable question might be, “Should we build a new town hall on the western side of town away from other municipal services, if it will take five years, disrupt some municipal services during construction, cause intermittent road closures, raise your taxes by 10% a year, have it located at the edge of town, result in hiring more staff, and incur greater operating costs when it opens, despite staff recommendations that we just refurbish the old one?”

Even that doesn’t include all of the factors necessary in the decision making process: what to do with the old town hall, should local contractors get preference in the tendering process, will there be local jobs created, can we get support funding from other governments, is the building “green” or LEEDS certified, do we have to buy or expropriate property, is the site currently zoned for it?

Most of all it doesn’t answer the biggest question: why do we need one now?

Perhaps, if you can vouchsafe that the participants in your poll have all paid close attention to the debate about building a new town hall, that they have attended council meetings to watch the debates, have read all the staff reports, have listened to the treasurer expound on the financial implications, have read and watched the local media to gain insight and understand the differences of opinion – they might be able to answer “Should we build a new town hall?” without further refinement. Good luck finding enough people in that category to fit the necessary sample size to validate the results.

Even if you could find such a group, the results can’t simply be reported in terms of yes and no votes. Demographic breakdown of the results is important, too. Politicians should be told the geographic location of the participants (how many west-end participants voted no compared to the east-end, for example), their age groups (are working parents more in favour than retirees?), gender, whether they live in town full-time or part-time, whether they own a vehicle or use public transit to get around town – all become parts of the decision-making milieu.

Most internet polls are merely for entertainment purposes. They harmlessly allow us to believe we are being engaged and are participating in the process, and they make pollsters happy to receive the attention. They are, however, not appropriate tools for making political or social decisions unless they are backed by rigid, scientific and statistical constraints.

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Yet More Quotes with False Attributions

So-called Francis of Assisi quoteIt seems a good week for mis-attributed Francis of Assisi quotes. Someone on Facebook posted an image with the following quote:
“He who works with his hands is a laborer.
He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman.
He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.
St. Francis of Assisi”

That’s simply “Francis of “Assisi” for the non-Catholics among us, of course. But even without the questionable transformation of mortal flesh into an immortal, supernatural being, Francis didn’t write those words.

This quote was written by Louis Nizer, an American lawyer (1902-1994). It might strike some as remarkable that a lawyer might have such profound words about art and heart, but that’s not the issue. The issue is who said it. And it wasn’t a Middle Ages religious person. Nizer was an accomplished trial lawyer, author, artist, lecturer, and advisor to some of the most powerful people in the worlds of politics, business, and entertainment, according to Wikipedia.

Francis actually had a lot to say, but it was, as far as I’ve read by and about him, very specifically religious in content. Very little of what Francis actually said translates well into this sort of bumper-sticker inspirational message the New Age loves so dearly (I often think Twitter, with its 140-character limit, was invented for the New Agers who desperately want everything to fit conveniently onto a bumper sticker).

Another alleged quote from Einstein is making the rounds. I’m not sure how anyone would not see this as a New Age sham quote. Poor Einstein: for a man of genius, he gets associated with the most mediocre pap.

Everything is energy and that’s all there is to it. Match the frequency of the reality you want and you cannot help but get that reality. It can be no other way. This is not philosophy. This is physics.

Giawken imageI seem to have misplaced the link to one of the Facebook images for this misquote, but here’s a copy of it from another site. There’s an excellent comment on this and the danger of mis-attributed quotes on the Giawaken site (I have not explored the rest of their site’s content, but the home page content looks annoyingly New Age).

The author – Daria Boissonnas – writes, “relying on a fictional quote to inspire us, when the truth is so much stronger…We don’t need fictional quotes. We don’t need to induct Einstein into the New Age to make the New Age valid or “real”…A false attribution weakens the quote, weakens your argument, weakens your reputation, and weakens the public opinion of what you are doing.”

The author should also note that mis-quotes contribute to the general lowering of intellectual standards in literacy, history, science and education. They dumb us down. So does pseudoscience like astrology – I throw that in because the author’s home page has links to astrological claptrap, psychic flim-flammery and other New Age nonsense.

The Quote Investigator looked into this misquote earlier this year, and found that it actually derives from a new Age “channeller” (I’d add the adjective flaky but it seems redundant…) named Darryl Anka,sometime between 1996 and early 2000. Anka apparently was a special effects artist for several motion pictures, and a self-described “channeler” who, according to Wikipedia, says he communicated with supernatural beings:

Anka claims that he began to communicate, through trance-channeling, with an extra-terrestrial entity called Bashar in 1983. He describes Bashar as existing in a parallel reality, in a time frame that we perceive as the future.

I know, I know, I almost snorted tea through my nose laughing at that, too. Anka’s imaginary friend, Bashar, apparently told him that, ““Match the frequency of the reality you want and you cannot help but get that reality.” The quote incorrectly attributed to Einstein also appears on the page as part of Anka’s own muddled explanation of what he claims his imaginary friend said.

You gotta love pseudo-scientific gibberish. All the words look like they might mean something but when you start to analyse it, you see it’s just hot air. But then so is pretty much everything “New Age.” Perhaps it’s no wonder that a lot of these misquotes spring from the addled minds of New Agers.

Facebook imageThis image highlights another problem in some of these posts: a misunderstanding of some words by those who want to create “inspirational” messages. In this case, the misunderstanding is in the word “karma.” Karma is about cause and effect; the wheel of samsara. It’s a cyclic process. Karma is not about either punishment or synchronicity.

This image does not say anything about what karma actually represents as a theological doctrine. I think the image’s creator had no understanding of what the word means, didn’t bother to look deeper to verify its meaning, so used it incorrectly as in this flaccid statement with obfuscated intent. In an era of Wikipedia and the .03 second time it takes to search for a word or phrase on Google, the failure to confirm the actual meaning of a word is sheer laziness or stupidity. Maybe both.

Buddhanet gives a fairly good explanation of what karma means, from which I quote at length:

Karma is the law of moral causation. The theory of Karma is a fundamental doctrine in Buddhism. This belief was prevalent in India before the advent of the Buddha. Nevertheless, it was the Buddha who explained and formulated this doctrine in the complete form in which we have it today.
…snip…
According to Buddhism, this inequality is due not only to heredity, environment, “nature and nurture”, but also to Karma. In other words, it is the result of our own past actions and our own present doings. We ourselves are responsible for our own happiness and misery. We create our own Heaven. We create our own Hell. We are the architects of our own fate.
Perplexed by the seemingly inexplicable, apparent disparity that existed among humanity, a young truth-seeker approached the Buddha and questioned him regarding this intricate problem of inequality:
“What is the cause, what is the reason, O Lord,” questioned he, “that we find amongst mankind the short-lived and long-lived, the healthy and the diseased, the ugly and beautiful, those lacking influence and the powerful, the poor and the rich, the low-born and the high-born, and the ignorant and the wise?”
The Buddha’s reply was:
“All living beings have actions (Karma) as their own, their inheritance, their congenital cause, their kinsman, their refuge. It is Karma that differentiates beings into low and high states.”

Like a mis-attributed quote, a misused word like this creates a bad meme that gets shared, further increasing the general misunderstanding. You might even say that a misquote like this creates bad karma for the one who spreads it…

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And again, more mis-attibuted quotes online

Faux Mark Twain quote“It’s easier to fool people than to convince them they have been fooled.” Allegedly by Mark Twain, but unlikely, and not found in any published source I have of Twain’s quotations. Online sources, of course, don’t count as authorities because they lack all credibility.

As one person commented on Yahoo,

The fact that “Quora attributes it to him” is worthless. Quora is yet another one of those idiotic “quote websites” that misquote and misattribute things all the time.
Note that Quora doesn’t bother to give an actual citation — what book was it from, what page, etc. Without a full citation, you have no assurance that this was said by Mark Twain or Herbert Hoover or some random dude who made it up yesterday.
It doesn’t appear (as Twain’s or anybody else’s) in either the 14th or 15th edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. I suppose it’s possible that it comes from the newly released edition of his Autobiography, but I think it’s more likely that it’s just something misattributed by some stupid “quote website.”

These comments are applicable to almost every quote site I’ve found, with rare exception such as wikiquote.org. Most of these so-called quote sites are wastes of electrons because they share without qualification, without verification, without confirmation.

Faux Picasso quoteEvery Child is an Artist. The problem is staying an artist when you grow up. Pablo Picasso. Again, another unsourced quote that does not appear in any reliable printed source such as Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations or the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, or on Wikiquotes. In fact, not of the reliable quotations from Picasso I have read ever mention children at all.

Sometimes this comment is noted as “”Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” Other variations include “Every child is born an artist” and this one: “Every child is born an artist. The problems begin once we start to grow up.”

I have not been able to identify the actual source of these words; every Internet site I have encountered sheepishly repeats the words or images, without bothering to identify where or when Picasso said them. Personally, I expect to discover they were made by some more modern educator rather than the late artist Picasso. Or perhaps part of it was taken from this Talmudic comment on poem by Isabella McCullough:

Every child is a poet.
Every child is an artist.
Every child is a philosopher.
Every child is a theologian.
Every child is an actor.
Every child is a dancer.
Every child is a nature-lover.
Every child is an explorer.
Every child is a comedian.
Every child is a skeptic.
Every child is a teacher.
Every child is a boundary pusher.
Every child is a truth speaker

Martin Luther King half-quote“Everything we see is a shadow cast by that we do not see. The invisible is a shadow cast by the invisible.” Martin Luther King Jr. This is actually a quote by King, but not the full portion, so it’s misleading. It has been taken out of context and turned into a soppy, New Age bumper sticker slogan.

It is taken from a sermon given by King on April 21, 1957, titled “Questions that Easter Answers.” The full quotation is:

Easter tells us that everything we see is a shadow cast by that we do not see. The invisible is a shadow cast by the invisible.

In other words, King wasn’t making some deep Platonic comment about the shadow-vs-truth nature of the world, but rather a very specific observation on the nature of Christian belief, and even more specifically about what the Christian observance of Easter teaches Christians. It is not a general comment on life, nor was it ever meant to be used as such.

Comments taken out of context like this are as dangerous and stupid as mis-attributed quotations.

Mark Twain actually said, (in a letter to George Bainton, 15 October 1888, solicited for and printed in George Bainton, The Art of Authorship: Literary Reminiscences, Methods of Work, and Advice to Young Beginners (1890), pp. 87–88.
sourced from Wikiquote): “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”

Literacy comment A book commits suicide every time you watch Jersey Shore. Just a peripheral comment on the nature of literacy; watching TV rather than reading is one of the reasons people are not critical thinkers, able to actually identify or confirm whether these are real or faux quotations. Most people simply pass them along unchecked because they confirm some sort of existing belief – “epistemic closure” it’s called.

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So many bad quotes, so little time

I was browsing through my blog posts today and found I have actually written about improperly attributed quotations on the Net nine times since I first started blogging back in March, 2005.

On my old Mumpsimus blog, I posted two pieces about these bad memes:

On this new blog, which I launched in mid_December, 2011, I have written seven pieces about bad Internet quotes, starting with the Slowly Dies piece, in January, 2012:

Mis-quoting SpockIt’s got so that every time I see some cutely-crafted poster with its quotation done in some artistic font, I have to start searching online to confirm the source. If only the people who designed such beautifully artistic images put a fraction of the work into confirming the source as they do in making their posters look pretty, I would not be so quick to challenge them.

Unless we use critical thinking, unless we use intellectual analysis and skepticism, unless we question, we are condemned to being fooled, to being cheated and being mislead.

Perhaps it’s become a small obsession for me. I’m not the only one who tries to correct these. I’ve mentioned the Quote Investigator and Wiki Quotes in previous posts. Today I found a piece about a popular quote mistakenly attributed to the Dalai Lama (ntweblog.blogspot.ca/2011/10/that-dalai-lama-quotation-and.html). That in turn led to a post about a quote mis-attributed to Albert Schweitzer (ntweblog.blogspot.ca/2007/08/jesus-creed-historical-jesus-series_17.html). Wiki Quotes has its list of popular mis-quotes (en.wikiquote.org/wiki/List_of_misquotations), as does Wikipedia (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_misquotations). And more at Secular Perspectives (secularhumanist.blogspot.ca/2011/01/skeptically-fact-checking-quotes.html) from when comes the image above.

Why bother? Because people are posting and sharing wrong information without checking it first. If information is the currency of the 21st century, then what they’re posting is counterfeit coinage. It’s not simply a mistake; it’s devaluing real information. It contributes to the general dumbing-down of our society. And it underscores the terrible lack of critical thinking that pervades our culture. People are too willing to suspend belief, too willing to accept statements and comments at face value when they reinforce their own beliefs. Instead, they should be thinking, reasoning and above all, questioning.

For me, the words of the Buddhist Kalama Sutra (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kalama_Sutta) should guide everyone’s online activity:

Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing, nor upon tradition, nor upon rumor, nor upon what is in a scripture, nor upon surmise, nor upon an axiom, nor upon specious reasoning, nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over, nor upon another’s seeming ability, nor upon the consideration, “The monk is our teacher.”
Kalamas, when you yourselves know: “These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,” enter on and abide in them.

Unless we use critical thinking, unless we use intellectual analysis and skepticism, unless we question, we are condemned to being fooled, to being cheated and being mislead.

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James Miles? Goethe? Sorry: this quote is from Malcolm Forbes

Ice Age, not New Age, but the message is the sameAnother New Age quote showed up on Facebook today, one of those warn-n-fuzzy, touchy-feely sayings that either make you gag or go weak at the knees. This one is ascribed to James D. Miles. Miles was, according to answers.com (a site of dubious factuality and not terribly reliable at the best of timns), “…an associate professor of Psychology at Purdue University.” The author of this answer claimed Miles was “…quoting the German poet, novelist, playwright, scientist and philosopher Johann Wofgang von Goethe (1749-1832).”

Miles is, indeed, a professor at Purdue, or at least has been in the recent past. But the last part is incorrect, or rather the attribution to Goethe is. Here’s the quotation in question attributed to James D. Miles:

You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.

Miles isn’t found in Wiki Quotes, nor did I find the quotation buried under another author’s name. I did scan a few works of Goethe and checked my Bartlett’s, but none of which showed these lines. So I turned to a very reliable, no-nonsense source…

According to the Quote Investigator, the quote has been variously attributed to, “Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Samuel Johnson, Ann Landers, Abigail Van Buren, Malcolm Forbes, James D. Miles, and Dan Reeves.”

One of those names is correct, but it isn’t James D. Miles. As QI notes:

The earliest instance of this saying that QI has located appeared in the popular newspaper column of Earl Wilson. He credited the well-known magazine publisher Malcolm Forbes in 1972 [EWMF]:
Remembered Quote: “You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.”—Malcolm S. Forbes.
In 1978 Forbes published a collection of his own quotations called “The Sayings of Chairman Malcolm” [SCMF]. This title was constructed as wordplay on the well-known doctrinal work “The Sayings of Chairman Mao” also called “Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung” or “The Little Red Book”.

Internet quotesI’m glad there are reliable, factual sources like the Quote Investigator; people willing to put in the time and effort to help correct these mistakes. Still, I can’t help but feel the effort is wasted because the general public would rather feel good than be right.

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Does this really sound like Sitting Bull?

Sitting BullAnother quote meme going around on the Internet claims to be from Sitting Bull (Tatanka Iyotake), the famous Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux chief. A fascinating man in a difficult time. He was brave, intelligent and, from all accounts, wise. So when I read the quote below, I was torn. It’s a good comment, one that sounds like it should come from a wise man. But was that wise man really Sitting Bull?

Or perhaps these words are from someone else. There are many of these false quotations online, words that have been appropriated and mis-attributed by the many slow and lazy Web users who can’t be bothered to confirm the source. From Shakespeare to Einstein, I’ve found dozens of bad quotes that spread around the Net, becoming memes. But even if the words are wise, attributing them to the wrong person just contributes to the general dumbing down of everyone who reads them. So who actually said:

For us, warriors are not what you think of as warriors. The warrior is not someone who fights, because no one has the right to take another’s life. The warrior, for us, is one who sacrifices himself for the good of others. His task is to take care of the elderly, the defenseless, those who cannot provide for themselves, and above all, the children, the future of humanity.

This one is repeated by Native Americans and on native sites as well, so perhaps it has some validity, but none of them ascribe any source to it, either.

I have yet to find any source that shows when or where Sitting Bull actually said it. So until then, it remains classified as a bad meme and likely by someone else.

I suspect it’s more wishful thinking than accurate attribution. We want our cultural, folk and personal heroes to sound wise and inspiring, so we attribute to them something that we believe they would have, could have, or should have said, often without checking back to be sure they actually said it. And when we do it online, we create a meme that gets spread like those crazy emails about Microsoft promising us millions if we just forward it to everyone we know.

Somehow, in the New Age mythology, warriors have gone from armed and dangerous soldiers who killed their enemies, fought and defended their lands with their lives, to happy, wise folks helping old ladies cross the street.

Wikiquotes – a generally reliable source – has several quotations from Sitting Bull, properly attributed. This is not among them, and is not even among the many unsourced quotes it lists. The quote itself is not found anywhere on Wiki Quotes by any other author.

My printed sources offer no help. Neither the Oxford nor the Penguin dictionaries of quotations have anything from Sitting Bull. Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (15th/125th anniversary edition) has a single statement Sitting Bull made that reads,

“What treaty have the Sioux made with the white man that we have broken? Not one. What treaty have the white man ever made with us that they have kept? Not one. When I was a boy the Sioux owned the world; the sun rose and set on their land; they sent ten thousand men to battle. Where are the warriors today? Who slew them? Where are our lands? Who owns them?… What law have I broken? Is it wrong for me to love my own? Is it wicked for me because my skin is red? Because I am a Sioux; because I was born where my father lived; because I would die for my people and my country?”

The ellipses says that this is a partial quote and that some of the words have been left out. That, however, is the only printed sources I have for any Sitting Bull quotes. There are quotes attributed to Sitting Bull to be found in some of the older books (many published pre-1920) digitized in the Internet Archives. None of them I have found (yet) match the quotation at the top of this page. However, their accuracy is questionable since they mostly seem to be second- or third-hand. Here are two from one source I’ve culled:

“Do you not see that the whites on the reservation are afraid of you? Why do you pray to great Wakantanka to send the Saviour on earth and bring about a change when the remedy lies in your own hands? Be men, not children. You have a perfect right to dance upon your own reservation as much as you please, and you should exercise this right, even if you find it necessary to use your guns. Be brave, and the great and good Wakantanka will aid your arms. Be cowards, and he will be ashamed of you.”

God Almighty made me an Indian, and he did not make me an agency Indian, and I do not intend to be one.

Here’s a quote from another 19th century source:

This is not my doings nor these men’s. They are fighting because they were commanded to fight. We have killed their leader, let them go. I call on the Great Spirit to witness what I say. We did not want to fight. Long Hair sent us word that he was coming to fight us, and we had to defend ourselves and our wives and children. If this command had not been given we could have cut Reno’s command to pieces, as we did Custer’s. No warrior knew Custer in the fight. We did not know him, dead or alive. When the fight was over the chiefs gave orders- to look for the long-haired chief among the dead, but no chief with long hair could be found.

Whether these are actual quotes, or paraphrased by the 19th century writers to better suit their personal, biased views of the ‘primitive savages’ they wrote about, I have no way to ascertain. I expect the latter.

I personally suspect the source of the original quotation is another writer. Perhaps from one of Dan Millman’s “peaceful warrior” books or from one of Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan books. Both have written on warriors, and the end bit about “…the children, the future of humanity” seems more suited to the style of these writers than to the few actual quotations of Sitting Bull’s I’ve read.

A third option is the inspirational/spiritual writer Paul Coelho, possibly from the Manual of the Warrior of the Light (1997) or possibly his novel, The Valkyries. Coelho founded the Paulo Coelho Institute, which provides aid to children and elderly people with financial problems. Coelho wrote on his blog,

“To the warriors of light, there is no such thing as impossible love.
They don’t allow themselves to be intimidated by silence, or by rejection.
They know that – behind the icy mask people wear – there is a heart of fire.
That is why the warriors risk more than others.
They tirelessly seek love – even if this means hearing, many times over, the word ‘no’, returning home defeated, feeling rejected in body and soul.
Warriors don’t allow themselves to be discouraged. Without love, living has no meaning.”

Coelho, Castaneda and Millman all write in a similar New-Age style that is a lot more like the quotation in question than anything I’ve read that can be verified as being by Sitting Bull. Similar sentiments to this and the quotation in question are expressed in different wording on several martial arts/bushido, New Age and even gaming sites, as well. Somehow, in the New Age mythology, warriors have gone from armed and dangerous soldiers who killed their enemies, fought and defended their lands with their lives, to happy, wise folks helping old ladies cross the street. It’s not a sentiment I would ascribe to many military leaders. And Sitting Bull was certainly one of those.

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Not a John Lennon quote… just another bad meme

Lennon mis-quoteAnother unsourced, mis-attributed quote is going the rounds, found as are so many on Facebook, this one turning itself into another of those annoying, unsourced Internet memes that people love to share:

When I was five years old, my Mom told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I wrote down “happy”. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment and I told them they didn’t understand life.”

Nope, not by Lennon. Just another bad Internet meme, with no source ever listed, but posted and re-posted as a Lennon quotation by the gullible souls who want warm-n-fuzzy thoughts to tinkle down on the rest of us. The Net is replete with laudatory comments about how this shows just how wise John was. Well, at least someone was wise, not Lennon, since he didn’t say it. But that doesn’t matter, does it? Just get gooey and gush about how meaningful it is. Uplifting, inspirational, some call it.

Sorry, but to me a bumper sticker about fishing is about as inspirational as this misquote. It’s one of those saccharine snippets you expect to read in self-help books; all puff and no substance. Tagged on blogs and forums with glittery words like happiness, fulfillment, wisdom. Kindness demands I should merely label this quote “apocryphal,” but I can’t get past the terms “sloppy thinking” and “gullible Netiots” when I read it.
Internet jokeAt the age of 4, Lennon was in the custody of his aunt Mimi (Mary Smith), not his mother. You really think a five-year-old is that precocious and witty? Kids say the darndest things… but that Lennon kid didn’t say this. (As an aside, he started school on Nov. 12, 1945, but by April, 1946 he had been expelled from Mosspits County Primary School for misbehaviour. He then went to Dovedale Road Primary School.)

Check Wikiquote and Beatlesquotes for confirmation or at least additional challenges.

Check those quotes, says Ralph Keyes: “As for Churchill, he-like Mark Twain, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln-is what Keyes calls a ‘flypaper figure,’ a personage so famously quotable that lesser wags’ witticisms and anonymous maxims, like the one Warner used, get stuck to him.”

The Quote Investigator also notes other lines mis-attributed to John Lennon. Lennon is also one of the Top Ten mis-quoted celebrities.

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It wasn’t Einstein who said it…

Not an Einstein quote!Yet another incorrectly attributed quotation is being passed around the Internet, this time on Facebook. This one is, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

A saccharine, touchy-feely, warm-puppy quote that appeals to some who take comfort in them, but Einstein never said that. According to Wikiquote’s page on Einstein,

This gets almost 500k hits on google, but as far as I can tell, none has a source… Doing a Google book search and restricting the date range to 1900-1990, there are only 10 books and several of them attribute it to “Samples, 1976” which is apparently The Metaphoric Mind by Bob Samples (which also seems to be the earliest published variant)… two sections that attribute it to Einstein, but as a paraphrase rather than a direct quote, with no source given, and the author seems to be adding his own comment when he writes “It is paradoxical that in the context of modern life we have begun to worship the servant and defile the divine” so even if the first part is accurate, this part is probably not Einstein’s.
Einstein had many quotes about the value of intuition and imagination, but the specific word “gift” can be found in a comment remembered by János Plesch in the section Albert_Einstein#Posthumous_publications, “When I examine myself and my methods of thought I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.” So, Bob Samples might have been paraphrasing that comment.

Einstein, as far as I know from my reading of several biographies, was unlikely to refer to a natural faculty as a “sacred gift” – Einstein was not openly an atheist (he called himself an agnostic), but neither was he by any means religious. A “sacred gift” suggests humans get their faculties handed down by the gods, rather than developed by evolution and through effort. Einstein would have rejected that for the codswallop it is.

Einstein’s religious views were firmly in the humanist-Descartes-Spinoza model, according to Wikipedia:

He believed in the God of Baruch Spinoza, but not in a personal god, a belief which he criticized. He also called himself an agnostic, and criticized atheism, preferring he said “an attitude of humility.”

One actual quote from Einstein is this:

I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one. You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being.

But his views on religion and spirituality were amorphous and seem to have changed over the years – although not towards him becoming religious in the traditional or formal sense, but rather in a deeper sense of wonder that can be called spiritual, without any identification with a personal deity.

It’s worth reading the entire entry to see how complex this subject is.

Be that as it may, this quotation is another bad Internet meme, perpetuated by people who are don’t bother to confirm sources and simply spread the silliness. Then the gullibles pick it up and spread it around faster than a chain letter. Damn, I wish people would check first and post later.

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