“A witty saying proves nothing.” — François-Marie Arouet, a.k.a. ‘Voltaire’ (1694-1778)
Categories: The Surreal Ones, The Political Ones & The Economic Dismals, Those of Rational & Scientific Bent, The Statistical Ones, The Religious Ones, The One Who Is Voltaire, The Index Invested Ones, and Your Humble Weekend Editor
The Surreal Ones
“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” — Groucho Marx
- “When you get to a fork in the road, take it.”
- “You can observe a lot by watching.”
- “Never answer an anonymous letter.”
- “The first 90% of any trip takes 90% of the time, and the last 10% takes the other 90%.”
- “Prediction is hard, especially when it’s about the future.”
- “What? You mean right now?” — in response to “What time is it?”
“Numquam ‘morde me’ lamiae dices.” (Never say ‘bite me’ to a vampire.) — Nobody who will admit it, but quite likely a Buffy fan
“Fait au Québec par les Québécois/Made in Canada by Canadians.” — ad campaign by Quebec-based Abris Penguin Shelters
“Pragmatism is great in theory, but it doesn’t work in practice.” — Sidney Morgenbesser (NB: “Pragmatism” here jokingly refers to a school of philosophy, of which Morgenbesser was one of the exponents; he’s being self-deprecating to an audience of insiders.)
“Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” — Ted Geisel (“Dr. Seuss”)
“When you’re running down the street on fire, people get out of your way.” — Richard Pryor
“Because that’s where the money is.” — Willie Sutton, upon being asked why he robbed banks
“Hæstaréttarmálaflutningslögmannsvinnukonuútidyralyklakippuhringurinn” — In Icelandic, “the key ring holding the front door key belonging to the maid who works for the lawyer who presents cases before the supreme court”, from Steinn Sigurðsson, of the PSU Astro Dept, in his blog Dynamics of Cats (later moved here, still later back)
“The second mouse gets the cheese.” — Who?
“Please scream inside your heart.” — officials at Fuji-Q Highland Amusement Park in Japan, advising against roller coaster screaming during the COVID-19 pandemic. Actually, they invented the absolutely correct slogan for all of the year 2020. Yeah… been screaming in my heart for years, really.
The Political Ones & The Economic Dismals
“A little patience, and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolve, and the people, recovering their true sight, restore their government to its true principles.” — Thomas Jefferson in 1798, after the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts
“We live in capitalism; its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.” — Ursula K. Le Guin, accepting the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the 65th National Book Awards on November 19, 2014.
“Well, most politicians have nothing against reason, but they won’t go out of their way to visit it.” — linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, interviewed in Anna Mundow, “The Interview: with Geoffrey Nunberg”, Boston Globe, 30-July-2006, Ideas Section, p. D7.
“Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of the man who can fabricate it.” — Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1973, p. 350.
“In war you will generally find that the enemy has at any time three courses of action open to him. Of those three, he will invariably choose the fourth.” — Helmuth von Moltke the Elder (quoted in “Hunting for Foxes: Capturing the Potential of Outlier Ideas in the Intelligence Community” by C Watts & J Brennan, in the CIA journal Studies in Intelligence 55:4 (2012), via Bruce Schneier)
“No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” — Helmuth von Moltke the elder
“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.” — H. L. Mencken
“An idealist is one who, on noticing that roses smell better than a cabbage, concludes that it will also make better soup.” — H. L. Mencken
“To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.” — President Theodore Roosevelt
“I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid. I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative. I believe that is so obviously and universally admitted a principle that I hardly think any gentleman will deny it.” — John Stuart Mill, in a March 1866 letter to Conservative MP Sir John Pakington
“It is bad enough that so many people believe things without any evidence. What is worse is that some people have no conception of evidence and regard facts as just someone else’s opinion.” — Thomas Sowell (though in general, I don’t care much for his other opinions)
“…each new generation born is in effect an invasion of civilization by little barbarians, who must be civilized before it is too late.” — Thomas Sowell
“The more compelling our journalism, the angrier the radical right of the Republican Party gets. That’s because the one thing they loathe more than liberals is the truth.” — Bill Moyers, in The Nation, reporting on a speech at the Conference for Media Reform in St Louis on May 14-15, 2005.
“Wicked men, ambitious of power, with hatred of liberty and contempt of law, may fill the place once occupied by Washington and Lincoln, and if this right is conceded, and the calamities of war again befall us, the dangers to human liberty are frightful to contemplate.” — 71 U.S. 2 (1866), ex parte Milligan, the US Civil War-era case upholding habeas corpus in wartime, even for “aiding the enemy”, and that citizens cannot be tried by military tribunals.
“… political discourse is necessarily symbolic because the facts exceed our curiosity.” — attributed to Walter Lipmann, in Anna Mundow, “The Interview: with Geoffrey Nunberg”, Boston Globe, 30-July-2006, Ideas Section, p. D7.
“Diplomacy is the art of saying ‘Nice doggie’ whilst you find a rock.” — attributed to Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, but also to Will Rogers
“One of the biggest changes in politics in my lifetime is that the delusional is no longer marginal.” — Bill Moyers
“The whole point of society is to be less unforgiving than nature.” — Arthur D. Hlavaty
“Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.” — Marcus Tullius Cicero, Roman statesman/orator/writer (106-43 BCE) NB: Rome ruled for another 5 centuries
“The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true.” — James Branch Cabell in The Silver Stallion: A Comedy of Redemption (1926), Book Four: Coth at Porutsa, Chapter 26: The Realist in Defeat.
“Optimists refuse to acknowledge reality. Idealists remind us that it isn’t fixed.” — Susan Neiman, “Change Germans Can’t Believe In”, New York Times, 2008-Jul-26.
“You need … to know that you are fit for something better than slavery and cannon fodder.” — Eugene V. Debs, American socialist leader in early 20th century. NB: Debs was convicted, imprisoned, and disenfranchised for this speech against World War I, delivered on June 16, 1918.
“First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.” — Gandhi
“All truth passes through three stages. First it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” — Arthur Schopenhauer
“… we should catch young people before they become CEOs, investment bankers, consultants, and money managers, and do our best to poison their minds with humanity.” — Kurt Vonnegut
“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” — Franklin D. Roosevelt
“The rich aren’t working hard enough because they’re not being paid enough; the poor aren’t working hard enough because they’re being paid too much?” — attributed to J. K. Galbraith, satirizing neocon capitalism
“Authority is the mask of violence.” — Ralph Steadman
“Certitude leads to violence.” — Oliver Wendell Holmes
“Thieves respect property. They merely wish the property to become their property that they may more perfectly respect it.” — G. K. Chesterton
“The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.” — G. K. Chesterton, Illustrated London News, 1924-Apr-04.
“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.” — G. K. Chesterton
“…at present we all tend to one mistake; we tend to make politics too important.” — G. K. Chesterton
“… the poor are pressed down from above into such stinking and suffocating underworlds of squalor, that poor people must not be allowed to have hair, because in their case it must mean lice in the hair. Therefore, the doctors propose to abolish the hair. It never seems to have occurred to them to abolish the lice. Yet it could be done. As is common in most modern discussions the unmentionable thing is the pivot of the whole discussion.” — G. K. Chesterton
“When the master governs, people are hardly aware that he exists … when his work is done, the people say, ‘Amazing: we did it, all by ourselves!’” — Tao te Ching, #17, transl. Stephen Mitchell
“Libertarianism. A simple-minded right-wing ideology ideally suited to those unable or unwilling to see past their own sociopathic self-regard.” — Iain Banks, Transition
“In the fall of 1972 President Nixon announced that the rate of increase of inflation was decreasing. This was the first time a sitting president used the third derivative to advance his case for reelection.” — Hugo Rossi, Editor of Notices of the American Mathematical Society, Not. AMS 43:10, 1108.
“In the end, there’s no justice. There’s just us.” — Who?
“No, it’s not fair. You’re in the wrong universe for fair.” — John Scalzi
“I really don’t know what you do about the ‘taxation is theft’ crowd, except possibly enter a gambling pool regarding just how long after their no-tax utopia comes true that their generally white, generally entitled, generally soft and pudgy asses are turned into thin strips of Objectivist Jerky by the sort of pitiless sociopath who is actually prepped and ready to live in the world that logically follows these people’s fondest desires.” — John Scalzi
“… almost everyone thinks he’s the good guy, and if you take your stand on
the slope of Mount Righteous Cause, it has proven as slippery as greased glass. But
social dominators will run to take their chances on that slippery slope.
— psychologist Bob Altemeyer, in his popular-level summary of his work on Right Wing Authoritarianism, The Authoritarians, p. 163.
“A man is incapable of comprehending any argument which interferes with his revenue.” — René Descartes (But see also: “It’s amazing how difficult it is for a man to understand something if he’s paid a small fortune not to understand it.” — Upton Sinclair)
“The pursuit of self-interest does not necessarily lead to overall economic efficiency.” — Joseph Stiglitz
“And in that state of nature, no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” — Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
- “Fanaticism consists in redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim.” — Life of Reason (1905) Vol I, “Introduction”
- “The truth is cruel, but it can be loved, and it makes free those who have loved it.” — Little Essays (1920) “Ideal Immortality”
- “Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect, and it is shameful to surrender it too soon or to the first comer.” — Skepticism and Animal Faith (1923)
- “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
“Those who profess to favor freedom, yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” — Frederick Douglass, American abolitionist, letter to an associate (1849)
“Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” — John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) in The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money.
“Justice is what love looks like in public, just like tenderness is what love feels like in private.” — Cornel West
“Nemo enim fere saltat sobrius, nisi forte insanit.” (No one dances sober, unless he is insane.) — Marcus Tullius Cicero, Pro Murena vi.13, 64BCE. He was discussing the ramifications of a political insult from Cato, who called a consul a “dancer”.
“Dignity does not consist of possessing honors, but in deserving them.” — Aristotle
“I will follow the right side even to the fire, but excluding the fire if I can.” — Michel de Montaigne
“We can be knowledgeable with other men’s knowledge but we cannot be wise with other men’s wisdom.” — Michel de Montaigne
“Μὴ κίνη χέραδασ.” (If you are squeamish, don’t prod the beach rubble.) — Sappho (7th century BCE)
“Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing - after they have exhausted all other possibilities.” — Winston Churchill
“If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.” — President John F. Kennedy, inaugural address, 1961.
“Good judgement comes from experience; experience comes from bad judgement.” — Mark Twain
“Each man must for himself alone decide what is right and what is wrong, which course is patriotic and which isn’t. You cannot shirk this and be a man.” — Mark Twain
“Every man is a moon — he has a side no one sees.” — Mark Twain
Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.” — Mark Twain
“I envy university professors. They are paid to question people who know nothing but try very hard to say something, while I have to question people who know everything but do their utmost to say nothing at all.” — Piercamillo Davigo, an Italian judge investigating corrupt politicians
“Wooden-headedness is a factor that plays a large role in government. It consists in assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs. It is acting according to wish while not allowing oneself to be deflected by the facts. It is epitomized in a historian’s statement about Phillip II of Spain, the surpassing wooden-head of all sovereigns: No experience of the failure of his policy could shake his belief in its essential excellence.” — my favorite historian, Barbara Tuchman, The March of Folly. This book is brilliantly described in Wikipedia as: “A meditation on the historical recurrence of governments pursuing policies evidently contrary to their own interests.” Not entirely by coincidence, it is also a brilliant description of George W. Bush and Donald J. Trump.
“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” — John Maynard Keynes
“The ‘purposive’ man is always trying to secure a spurious and delusive immortality for his acts by pushing his interest in them forward into time. He does not love his cat, but his cat’s kittens; nor, in truth, the kittens, but only the kittens’ kittens, and so on forward forever to the end of cat-dom. For him jam is not jam unless it is a case of jam to-morrow and never jam to-day. Thus by pushing his jam always forward into the future, he strives to secure for his act of boiling it an immortality.” — John Maynard Keynes, “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”
“If all else fails, immortality can always be assured by spectacular error.” — John Kenneth Galbraith
“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” — George S. Patton
“It is not for the dignity of a judge, when he comes to pronounce the fatal sentence, to express any emotions of anger… for he condemns the vice, not the man… nor is there any need of an angry magistrate for the punishment of foolish and wicked men.” — Seneca, De Ira (On Anger)
“A fanatical belief in democracy makes democratic institutions impossible.” — Bertrand Russell, “Philosophy and Politics”, Chapter 1 of Unpopular Essays, 1950.
“The whole conception of superior races is merely a myth generated by the overweening self-esteem of the holders of power.” — Bertrand Russell, “An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish”, Chapter 7 of Unpopular Essays, 1950.
“Many a man will have the courage to die gallantly, but will not have the courage to say, or even to think, that the cause for which he is asked to die is an unworthy one.” — Bertrand Russell, “An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish”, Chapter 7 of Unpopular Essays, 1950.
“In America everybody is of opinion that he has no social superiors, since all men are equal, but he does not admit that he has no social inferiors, for, from the time of Jefferson onward, the doctrine that all men are equal applies only upwards, not downwards.” — Bertrand Russell, “Ideas That Have Harmed Mankind”, Chapter 10 of Unpopular Essays, 1950.
“The quality of ideas seems to play a minor role in mass movement leadership. What counts is the arrogant gesture, the complete disregard of the opinion of others, the singlehanded defiance of the world.” — Eric Hoffer, The True Believer
“If in order to keep the wheels turning you have to deafen ears with propaganda, crack the whip of Terror, and keep pushing people around, then you haven’t got a machine civilization no matter how numerous and ingenious your machines.” — Eric Hoffer, The Ordeal of Change, Ch 5 “The Readiness to Work”, 1963.
“To the excessively fearful the chief characteristic of power is its arbitrariness. Man had to gain enormously in confidence before he could conceive an all-powerful God who obeys his own laws.” — Eric Hoffer, Reflections on the Human Condition, Section 163, 1973.
“I hang onto my prejudices, they are the testicles of my mind.” — Eric Hoffer, [Before the Sabbath], p. 79, 1979.
“If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” — Orson Welles
“你永远无法叫醒一个装睡的人，除非那个装睡的人自己决定醒来.” (You can never wake up a person who is pretending to be asleep, unless that person decides to wake up.) — 周濂 (Zhou Lian), Chinese philosopher, in an article called “你永远无法叫醒一个装睡的人” (You can never wake up a person who is pretending to be asleep).
Those of Rational & Scientific Bent
“Science says the first word on everything, and the last word on nothing.” — Victor Hugo
“The scientist does not study nature because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful.” — Henri Poincaré
“Physics is very muddled again at the moment; it is much too hard for me anyway, and I wish I were a movie comedian or something like that and had never heard anything about physics!” — Wolfgang Pauli, 1925 in the process of being one of the founders of quantum mechanics
“One should no more rack one’s brain about the problem of whether something one cannot know anything about exists all the same, than about the ancient question of how many angels are able to sit on the point of a needle.” — Wolfgang Pauli, on the quantum measurement problem but, as usual, applicable elsewhere.
“I do not like it, and I am sorry I ever had anything to do with it.” — Erwin Schrödinger, on quantum mechanics (talk about misplaced regrets!)
“A method is more important than a discovery, since the right method will lead to new and even more important discoveries.” — Lev Landau
“The secret is comprised in three words – Work. Finish. Publish.” — Michael Faraday, in response to being asked the secret of being a great scientist
“Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.” — Hanlon’s razor (1980) (But see also: “You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity.” — Robert Heinlein, “Logic of Empire” (1941))
“Being intelligent is not a felony. But most societies evaluate it as at least a misdemeanor.” — Robert A. Heinlein
“Everything in the universe is the fruit of chance and of necessity.” — Democritus
“What is true is already so.
Owning up to it doesn’t make it worse.
Not being open about it doesn’t make it go away.
And because it’s true, it is what is there to be interacted with.
Anything untrue isn’t there to be lived.
People can stand what is true,
for they are already enduring it.” — Eugene Gendlin
“Any sufficiently advanced neglect is indistinguishable from malice.” — Debbie Chachra, professor of engineering at Olin College, speaking of attempts to weaken the Affordable Care Act (the American half-hearted gesture in the direction of universal health care); she finds the increasing applicability and usefulness of this quote quite depressing.
“… if you were ignorant about a phenomenon, that was a fact about your own state of mind, not a fact about the phenomenon itself; that your uncertainty was a fact about you, not a fact about whatever you were uncertain about; that ignorance existed in the mind, not in reality; that a blank map did not correspond to a blank territory. There were mysterious questions, but a mysterious answer was a contradiction in terms.” — Eliezer Yudkowsky, channelling ET Jaynes in Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality
“We used to think that if we knew one, we knew two, because one and one are two. We are finding that we must learn a great deal more about ‘and’.” — Sir Arthur Eddington, quoted in A. L. Mackay, The Harvest of a Quiet Eye, 1977.
“Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.” — Sir Arthur Eddington. (But see also: “Not only is the universe stranger than we suspect; it is stranger than we can suspect.” — J. B. S. Haldane)
“We are all agreed that your theory is crazy. The question that divides us is whether it is crazy enough to have a chance of being correct.” — Niels Bohr, on evaluating a colleague’s work
“Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper.” — Robert Frost
“There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.” — John Rogers, Kung Fu Monkey, 2009-Mar-19. Also quoted in GoodReads. Example of a bait & switch comparison, or This is Not That Trope.
“In adolescence, I hated life and was continually on the verge of suicide, from which, however, I was restrained by the desire to know more mathematics.” — Bertrand Russell
“Dogmatism and skepticism are both, in a sense, absolute philosophies; one is certain of knowing, the other of not knowing. What philosophy should dissipate is certainty, whether of knowledge or ignorance.” — Bertrand Russell, “Philosophy for the Laymen”, Chapter 2 of Unpopular Essays, 1950.
“Science is what we know, and philosophy is what we don’t know.” — Bertrand Russell, “Philosophy for the Laymen”, Chapter 2 of Unpopular Essays, 1950.
“If the matter is one that can be settled by observation, make the observation yourself. Aristotle could have avoided the mistake of thinking that women have fewer teeth than men, by the simple device of asking Mrs. Aristotle to keep her mouth open while he counted. He did not do so because he thought he knew. Thinking that you know when in fact you don’t is a fatal mistake, to which we are all prone. … If, like most of mankind, you have passionate convictions on many such matters, there are ways in which you can make yourself aware of your own bias. If an opinion contrary to your own makes you angry, that is a sign that you are subconsciously aware of having no good reason for thinking as you do.” — Bertrand Russell, “An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish”, Chapter 7 of Unpopular Essays, 1950.
“Aha – what I wanted to be true would be, had I wanted the right thing to be true.” — Dan Asimov, on the Math-Fun mailing list
“Creatures inveterately wrong in their inductions have a pathetic but praiseworthy tendency to die before reproducing their kind.” — W.V.O. Quine, Natural Kinds
“The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.” — Linus Pauling
“I try. I fail. I try again. I fail better.” — Samuel Beckett
“A university student should know something about everything, and everything about something.” — Anatole France
“A horselaugh is worth a thousand syllogisms.” — H. L. Mencken
“Die Welt ist alles, was der Fall ist.” (The world is all that is the case.) — Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus, Proposition 1 (How the Tractatus begins. Wittgenstein is famous for near-incomprehensible prose. It might be deep, it might be trivial. Or, it might be both: seeing the depth in the ordinariness of things. Ah, but which…)
“Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen.” (Whereof one cannot speak, thereof must one remain silent.) — Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus, Proposition 7 (at which point the Tractatus ends)
“There is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics.” — G. H. Hardy
“The society which scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.” — John Gardner, Excellence: Can we be equal and excellent too?, 1961.
“He who can do nothing, knows nothing.” — Paracelsus.
“One must learn by doing the thing; for though you think you know it, you have no certainty until you try.” — Sophocles, ca. 450 BCE.
“Details are all that matters; God dwells there, and you never get to see Him if you don’t struggle to get them right.” — Stephen Jay Gould
“Truth must be repeated again and again, because error is constantly being preached around it.” — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
“Always side with the truth. It’s much bigger than you are.” — Teresa Nielsen Hayden
“I believe that no discovery of fact, however trivial, can be wholly useless to the race, and that no trumpeting of falsehood, however virtuous in intent, can be anything but vicious. … But the whole thing, after all, may be put very simply. I believe that it is better to tell the truth than to lie. I believe that it is better to be free than to be a slave. And I believe that it is better to know than be ignorant.” — H. L. Mencken
“Believe it or not, there is a certain charm to simply telling the truth, and even to telling the truth simply.” — Molly Ivins, in an Alternet article, now vanished.
“If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” — Mark Twain
“Seek not greatness, but seek truth and you will find both.” — Horace Mann
“There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; not going all the way, and not starting. — Buddha
“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” — John Adams, “Argument in Defense of the Soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trials”, December 1770.
“I cannot give any scientist of any age better advice than this: the intensity of a conviction that a hypothesis is true has no bearing over whether it is true or not.” — Peter Medawar
“… ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.” — Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, frontmatter, p. 2. (Compare William Butler Yeats’s terrifying poem, “The Second Coming”, written in WWI aftermath and the 1918 flu pandemic: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”)
“Dealing with failure is easy: Work hard to improve. Success is also easy to handle: You’ve solved the wrong problem. Work hard to improve.” — Alan Perlis, epigram #101 in “Epigrams in Programming”, ACM SIGPLAN Notices 17:9 (1982-Sep), pp. 7-13.
“What men of science want is only a fair day’s wages for more than a fair day’s work; and most of us, I suspect, would be well content if, for our days and nights of unremitting toil, we could secure the pay which a first-class Treasury clerk earns without any obviously trying strain upon his faculties. — Thomas Huxley, “Administrative Nihilism”, Collected Essays I, 1871.
“In physical science a first essential step in the direction of learning any subject is to find principles of numerical reckoning and practicable methods for measuring some quality connected with it. I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about and express it in numbers you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind: it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the stage of science, whatever the matter may be.” — physicist William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin, Popular Lectures and Addresses, Vol. I, 1891, p. 80.
The Statistical Ones
“The best thing about being a statistician is that you get to play in everyone’s backyard.” — John Tukey
“To understand God’s thoughts we must study statistics, for these are the measures of His purpose.” — Florence Nightingale (1820-1910)
“Statistical thinking will one day be as necessary for efficient citizenship as the ability to read and write.” — H.G. Wells
“If people aren’t given well-founded methods …, they’ll just use dubious ones instead.” — Jonathan Tawn, professor of statistics at Lancaster University & medalist of the Royal Statistical Society, on extreme value theory
“Extreme Value Theory is too expensive to ignore.” — Valérie Chavez-Demoulin & Armin Roehrl, “Extreme Value Theory can save your neck”, 8-Jan-2004.
“Statistics don’t work on people whose sense of superiority depends on not understanding statistics.” — Who?
“If your result needs a statistician, then you should design a better experiment.” — Ernest Rutherford, 1st Baron Rutherford of Nelson, and Nobel Laureate
“Statistical and applied probabilistic knowledge is the core of knowledge; statistics is what tells you if something is true, false, or merely anecdotal; it is the ‘logic of science’; it is the instrument of risk-taking; it is the applied tools of epistemology; you can’t be a modern intellectual and not think probabilistically — but… let’s not be suckers. The problem is much more complicated than it seems to the casual, mechanistic user who picked it up in graduate school. Statistics can fool you.” — Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Fourth Quadrant: a Map of the Limits of Statistics
“But statistical regularities, like facts, are stubborn things. You bet against them at your peril.” — Alan S. Blinder, Princeton economics professor & former vice chair of the Federal Reserve, “Is History Siding with Obama’s Economic Plan?”, NYT 30-Aug-2008.
“It is easy to lie with statistics.” — Darrell Huff, How to Lie with Statistics. (But see: “It is easier to lie without them.” — Frederick Mosteller, founding chair of the Harvard statistics department.)
“Most people use statistics the way a drunk uses a lamp post – more for support than enlightenment.” — Mark Twain
The Religious Ones
“Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime;
therefore, we are saved by hope.
Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history;
therefore, we are saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone;
therefore, we are saved by love.” — Reinhold Niebuhr
“Niebuhr was a critic of national innocence, which he regarded as a delusion. … ‘Nations, as individuals, who are completely innocent in their own esteem,’ Niebuhr wrote, ‘are insufferable in their human contacts.’ The self-righteous delusion of innocence encouraged a kind of Manichaeism dividing the world between good (us) and evil (our critics).” — Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., in “Forgetting Reinhold Niebuhr”, a NYT essay on why American conservative religious hysteria ignores Reinhold Niebuhr, perhaps one of the 20th century’s greatest theologians
“Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” — Reinhold Niebuhr
“We could bring calamity on ourselves and the world by forgetting that even the most powerful nations … remain themselves creatures as well as creators of the historical process.” — Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History (1952)
“It’s not necessary to be a saint to do good. You need willing hands, not clean ones.” — Mother Theresa
“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” — Phillip K Dick
“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” — Dom Hélder Pessoa Câmara, archbishop of Recife and apostle of social justice
“Truth, like gold, is to be obtained not by its growth, but by washing away from it all that is not gold.” — Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy
“Believe nothing, no matter where you read it or who has said it, not even if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” — Buddha
“Once for all, then, a short precept is given you: Love, and do what you will: whether you hold your peace, through love hold your peace; whether you cry out, through love cry out; whether you correct, through love correct; whether you spare, through love do you spare: let the root of love be within, of this root can nothing spring but what is good. — St. Augustine, Homily 7 on 1 John
“Often a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other parts of the world, about the motions and orbits of the stars and even their sizes and distances,… and this knowledge he holds with certainty from reason and experience. It is thus offensive and disgraceful for an unbeliever to hear a Christian talk nonsense about such things, claiming that what he is saying is based in Scripture. We should do all that we can to avoid such an embarrassing situation, lest the unbeliever see only ignorance in the Christian and laugh to scorn.” — Augustine of Hippo, De Genesi ad litteram libri duodecim (The Literal Meaning of Genesis)
“It is said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That is false: tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality — this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods… In the end, the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: ‘I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ: Think it possible you may be mistaken.’” — Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man
“They lied to you. The Devil is not the Prince of Matter; the Devil is the arrogance of the spirit, faith without smile, truth that is never seized by doubt. The Devil is grim because he knows where he is going, and, in moving, he always returns whence he came.” — Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
“Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.” — Gustav Mahler
“Adam was but human — this explains it all. He did not want the apple for the apple’s sake, he wanted it only because it was forbidden. The mistake was in not forbidding the serpent; then he would have eaten the serpent.” — Mark Twain
“Faith is something more to be struggled with than had.” — Jeremy Ahouse
“Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.” — Paul Tillich
“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forego their use.” — Galileo Galilei
“…there is a law written in the darkest of the Books of Life, and it is this: If you look at a thing nine hundred and ninety-nine times, you are perfectly safe; if you look at it the thousandth time, you are[Pg 24] in frightful danger of seeing it for the first time.” — G. K. Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, p. 23-24.
“All science, even the divine science, is a sublime detective story. Only it is not set to detect why a man is dead; but the darker secret of why he is alive.” — G. K. Chesterton, The Thing Ch 9 ‘What do they think?’.
“I have sometimes had occasion to murmur meekly that those who endure the heavy labour of reading a book might possibly endure that of reading the title-page of a book. For there are more examples than may be imagined, in which earnest critics might solve many of their problems about what a book is, merely by discovering what it professes to be.” — G. K. Chesterton, on critics who misunderstood The Man Who Was Thursday.
“The voice of the special rebels and prophets, recommending discontent, should … sound now and then suddenly, like a trumpet. But the voices of the saints and sages, recommending contentment, should sound unceasingly, like the sea.” — G. K. Chesterton
“The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.” — G. K. Chesterton
“Religious liberty might be supposed to mean that everybody is free to discuss religion. In practice it means that hardly anybody is allowed to mention it.” — G. K. Chesterton, Autobiography, 1937.
“To have a right to do a thing is not at all the same as to be right in doing it.” — G. K. Chesterton, A Short History of England, chapter 10.
“I believe what really happens in history is this: the old man is always wrong; and the young people are always wrong about what is wrong with him. The practical form it takes is this: that, while the old man may stand by some stupid custom, the young man always attacks it with some theory that turns out to be equally stupid.” — G. K. Chesterton
“Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible. If we admit that the individual is in some measure conditioned or affected by the spirit of society, an individual’s crime discloses society’s corruption. In a community not indifferent to suffering, uncompromisingly impatient with cruelty and falsehood, continually concerned for God and every [person], crime would be infrequent rather than common.” — Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets.
“When I was young, I used to admire intelligent people; as I grow older, I admire kind people.” — Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
“A prophet is … a witness to the divine pathos, one who bears testimony to God’s concern for human beings.” — Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
“The opposite of good is not evil, but indifference.” — Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
“… to speak about God and remain silent on Vietnam is blasphemous.” — Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” — Rabbi Tarfon, Pirkei Avot 2:16, Talmud (This popularized version rather mangles the original; it appears to be from a mix of sources including the book of Micah 6:8, the Pirkei Avot 2:16, and a modern day translation by Rami Shapiro of Pirke Avot.)
“We want experiences, fitting ones, of profound connection with others, of deep understanding of natural phenomena, of love, of being profoundly moved by music or tragedy, or doing something new and innovative, experiences very different from the bounce and rosiness of happy moments. What we want, in short, is a life and a self that happiness is a fitting response to — and then to give it that response.” — Robert Nozick, The Examined Life.
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” — Søren Kierkegaard, Journalen JJ:167 (1843)
- Original Danish: “Det er ganske sandt, hvad Philosophien siger, at Livet maa forstaaes baglaends. Men derover glemmer man den anden Saetning, at det maa leves forlaends. Hvilken Saetning, jo meer den gjennemtaenkes, netop ender med, at Livet i Timeligheden aldrig ret bliver forstaaeligt, netop fordi jeg intet Øieblik kan faae fuldelig Ro til at indtage Stillingen: baglaends.”
- English: “It is really true what philosophy tells us, that life must be understood backwards. But with this, one forgets the second proposition, that it must be lived forwards. A proposition which, the more it is subjected to careful thought, the more it ends up concluding precisely that life at any given moment cannot really ever be fully understood; exactly because there is no single moment where time stops completely in order for me to take position [to do this]: going backwards.”
- Often shortened to: “Livet skal forstaas baglaens, men leves forlaens.” (Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.)
“Equity bids us to be merciful to the weakness of human nature; to think less about what he said than about what he meant; not to consider the actions of the accused so much as his intentions, nor this or that detail so much as the whole story.” — Aristotle
“Pragmatists explained that Truth is what it pays to believe. Historians of morals reduced the Good to a matter of tribal custom. Beauty was abolished by artists in a revolt against the sugary insipidities of a philistine epoch and in a mood of fury in which satisfaction is to be derived only from what hurts. And so the world was swept clear not only of God as a person but of God’s essence as an ideal to which man owed an ideal allegiance.” — Bertrand Russell, “On Being Modern-Minded”, Chapter 6 of Unpopular Essays, 1950.
“I am sometimes shocked by the blasphemies of those who think themselves pious – for instance, the nuns who never take a bath without wearing a bathrobe all the time. When asked why, since no man can see them, they reply: ‘Oh, but you forget the good God.’ Apparently they conceive of the Deity as a Peeping Tom, whose omnipotence enables Him to see through bathroom walls, but who is foiled by bathrobes. This view strikes me as curious.” — Bertrand Russell, “An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish”, Chapter 7 of Unpopular Essays, 1950.
“As soon as we abandon our own reason, and are content to rely upon authority, there is no end to our troubles.” — Bertrand Russell, “An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish”, Chapter 7 of Unpopular Essays, 1950.
“Man is a credulous animal, and must believe something; in the absence of good grounds for belief, he will be satisfied with bad ones.” — Bertrand Russell, “An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish”, Chapter 7 of Unpopular Essays, 1950.
“To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom, in the pursuit of truth as in the endeavour after a worthy manner of life.” — Bertrand Russell, “An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish”, Chapter 7 of Unpopular Essays, 1950.
“The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.” — Bertrand Russell
“Forgive him, for he believes that the customs of his tribe are the laws of nature.” — George Bernard Shaw
“… the first sign of civilization in an ancient culture was a femur that had been broken and then healed.” — attributed to anthropologist Margaret Mead, quoted in Ira Byock, The Best Care Possible: A Physician’s Quest to Transform Care Through the End of Life (Avery, 2012). Byock goes on to explain: “… broken femur that has healed is evidence that someone has taken time to stay with the one who fell, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety and has tended the person through recovery. Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts. We are at our best when we serve others. Be civilized.” (It appears, though, that Mead never said anything like this.)
“Men, like poets, rush ‘into the middest’, in medias res, when they are born; they also die in mediis rebus, and to make sense of their span they need fictive concords with origins and ends, such as give meaning to lives and to poems. The End they imagine will reflect their irreducibly intermediary preoccupations. They fear it, and as far as we can see have always done so; the End is a figure for their own deaths.” — Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending
“Aus so krummem Holze, als woraus der Mensch gemacht ist, kann nichts ganz Gerades gezimmert werden.” (Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.) — Immanuel Kant
“… skepticism means that, whatever one’s doubts, one must act as if one can make a difference.” — John William Ward, chair of the Ward Commission investigating corruption in public construction in Massachusetts in the 1980s, quoted in Mark L. Wolf’s opinion piece, “A death foreshadowed”, Boston Globe, Sunday July 23, 2006, p. E9. Wolf is cheif judge of the US District Courts for the District of Massachusetts, and was one of the first successful prosecutors of public figures using the powers resulting from the Ward Commission’s work.
“What cannot be said will be wept.” — Sappho (7th century BCE)
“Speaking to suffering is a skill born in empathy, and it’s not easily learned. Odin gave up an eye for wisdom.” — John Isbell, in a comment at Crooked Timber
“Wisdom is a virtue of old age, and it seems to come only to those who, when young, were neither wise nor prudent.” — Hannah Arendt
“The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” — Hannah Arendt
“You are personally responsible for becoming more ethical than the society you grew up in.” — Eliezer Yudkowsky
“True religion invites us to become better people. False religion tells us that this has already occurred.” — Abdal-Hakim Murad
“No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish.” — David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 1748.
“It is wrong always, everywhere, and for everyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” — W. K. Clifford, “The Ethics of Belief”, Contemporary Review, 1877. Clifford also offered a related principle: “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to ignore evidence that is relevant to his beliefs, or to dismiss relevant evidence in a facile way.” These are, charmingly, called Clifford’s Principle and Clifford’s Other Principle, respectively.
“God alone is satisfied with what He is and can proclaim: ‘I am what I am.’ Unlike God, man strives with all his might to be what he is not. He incessantly proclaims: ‘I am what I am not.’” — Eric Hoffer, The Passionate State of Mind, and Other Aphorisms, section 54, 1955.
“The pleasure we derive from doing favors is partly in the feeling it gives us that we are not altogether worthless.” — Eric Hoffer, The Passionate State of Mind, and Other Aphorisms, section 113, 1955.
“Compassion is probably the only antitoxin of the soul. Where there is compassion even the most poisonous impulses remain relatively harmless. One would rather see the world run by men who set their hearts on toys but are accessible to pity, than by men animated by lofty ideals whose dedication makes them ruthless. In the chemistry of man’s soul, almost all noble attributes – courage, honor, hope, faith, duty, loyalty, etc. – can be transmuted into ruthlessness. Compassion alone stands apart from the continuous traffic between good and evil proceeding within us.” — Eric Hoffer, The Passionate State of Mind, and Other Aphorisms, section 139, 1955.
The One Who Is Voltaire
François-Marie Arouet, a.k.a. “Voltaire”, (1694-1778):
- “Optimism is the madness of insisting that all is well when we are miserable.” — Candide
- “The English gain two hours a day more than we do, by eating their syllables.” — quoted in Erin McKean, “The Word”, Boston Globe Ideas section, 2010-Oct-31
- “No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.”
- “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.”
- “Il est dangereux d’avoir raison dans des choses où des hommes accrédités ont tort.” (It is dangerous to be right on matters where the authorities are wrong.)
- “A witty saying proves nothing.” (To which your Weekend Editor adds: including this one.)
- “Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres.” (In this country, it is good to kill an admiral from time to time, to encourage the others.)
- “If there were only one religion in England there would be danger of despotism; if there were two they would cut each other’s throats. But there are thirty, and they live in peace and happiness.”
- “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”
- “Every man is guilty of the good he didn’t do.”
- “What is tolerance? It is the consequence of humanity. We are all formed of frailty and error; let us pardon reciprocally each other’s folly – that is the first law of nature.”
- “Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too.”
- “I am very fond of truth, but not at all of martyrdom.”
- “Anything that is too stupid to be spoken is sung.” (To which your Weekend Editor adds: hence, the origin of American musical theatre.)
- “Appreciation is a wonderful thing: It makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well.”
- “I advise you to go on living solely to enrage those who are paying you annuities.”
- “It is one of the superstitions of the human mind to have imagined that virginity could be a virtue.”
- “So far from believing in nothing, I can believe in witchcraft and am confident that with incantations (and arsenic) it is possible to poison a flock of sheep!” (upon accusation of atheism)
- “I die adoring God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies, and detesting superstition.” (Whereupon he did not die, at least not for some months more.)
The Index Invested Ones
“If you don’t get this elementary, but mildly unnatural, mathematics of elementary probability into your repertoire, then you go through a long life like a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.” — Charlie Munger, in a 1994 speech to students at USC, quoted in ValueWalk. He’s speaking of some letters exchanged between Pascal & Fermat, working out the basics of probability in gambling.
“It’s important in life and in investing always to question yourself. Understand that you may be wrong, especially when you believe too firmly that you’re right.” — George Soros, interview in CNN Money 14-May-2008.
“Simplicity is the ultimate form of sophistication.” — Leonardo da Vinci
“There are three classes of people who do not believe that markets work: the Cubans, the North Koreans, and active managers.” — Rex Sinquefield, Chairman & CIO @ DFA, quoted by Chris Farrell, “Why Index Funds Can’t Be Beat”, Business Week, 14-Nov-2003.
“The market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent.” — John Maynard Keynes
- “Conversation is when you and I revise our mutual understanding of the world. (Assuming you’re not a fundamentalist, so we have a mutual understanding of the world to begin with…)”
- “Freedom is the mastery of form.”
- “‘This sentence is true’ – why wasn’t Epimenides as outraged by this as the other one?”
- “Serendipity is wherever you find it.”
- “You can’t plan serendipity – give chance a chance!”
- “I once tried a meta-search engine, but all it gave me was serendipity.”
- “Don’t tell me I didn’t tell you I wasn’t going to tell you I told you so!”
- “Never offer a predator a second bite.”
- “Are you going to break the rules, or are the rules going to break you?”
- “People are so intent on bashing each others brains out with authoritative quotes from impressively ancient tomes that they often forget to read those lovely old books to find out what’s actually in them.”
- “If you’re always at your best, then your range is too narrow.”
- “Learn to love good, then live as you please.” (Possibly inspired by Augustine’s homily on John, above?)
- “Doubt is what keeps you from believing stupid stuff; fear is what keeps you from doing stupid stuff.”
- “Authority is a poor excuse for leadership. Real authority comes from truth, not power.”
- “Certainty is just an excuse not to listen to new evidence.”
- “Just because you see an example of something being done badly doesn’t mean it cannot also be done well.”
- “Scientists talk about nature; cranks talk about themselves.”
- “It never pays to humiliate an opponent. Defeat, disarm, divert, coopt, compromise, befriend, … never humiliate.”
- “If you’re gonna lose your grip on reality, let go with both hands. No half measures!”
- “If you don’t have a solution, you can always admire the problem.”
- “An archetype is what you get when you factor-analyze a real person.”
- “Look… if I could explain it, it wouldn’t be transcendant in the first place, now would it?”
- “Footnotes are your friends.”
- “Bayesians are enamoured of prior knowledge. Or is it prior prejudice? You don’t know which, because it’s prior!”
- “If you find you’ve shot yourself in the foot, it’s time to pause and reflect, not reload. That’s Bayes Rule!”
- “When you begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel… remember you’re still in the tunnel.”
- “There is no evolutionary premium on elegance. Life is a kludge. Biology is a carefully selected set of race conditions that make no sense, except how they work together for survival.”
- “Trust is never something you can demand. You have to earn it. If you want to be trusted, then act trustworthily.”
- “I believe in confirmation bias. If I keep seeing examples of confirmation bias everywhere, is that an example of confirmation bias?”