Following the Panthers' bizarre loss to the Buffalo Bills last Sunday, I was looking through the comments section on the Panthers coverage blog on charlotteobserver.com. Basically, the rule of thumb is that if you didn't just win the national championship, there's someone out there on the internet angrily calling for someone to be fired. The latest targets on the Panthers are coach John Fox, who's always played a conservative game but has had more success in Charlotte than either of the previous two coaches, and quarterback Jake Delhomme, who truly does look like his career is about over. Of course, after an ugly loss like the one to the Bills, the message boards are filled with calls for the quarterback to be benched and the coach to be fired. One particular sage adamantly stated,
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. John Fox must be clinical!
I'd seen this before, and always wondered where it came from. If you Google it, you will quickly encounter one of the primary benefits of the internet -- its ability to very quickly come back with several versions of the wrong answer. One site called "brainyquote.com" attributes this phrasing to Einstein:
Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Any number of other websites purporting to have quotes and answers will give you something similar. Most attribute it to Einstein, but others give it to Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain, or some other font of knowledge. I had a hard time believing any of these, not just because of the conflicting tales, but of the general silliness of the assertion. First of all, you'll have considerable trouble finding a dictionary that actually defines insanity this way. According to Dictionary.com, the American Heritage Stedman's Medical Dictionary defines it, most succinctly, as "persistent mental disorder or derangement."
Not to mention this, but doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is often a realistic expectation of the world. In very few things can you do exactly the same thing many times and get the same results -- I would wager that those who follow that expectation verge closer to true mental illness than those who expect different ones. in any case, there is some slight trail. Wikiquote, generally more trustworthy than many other soruces, may find the source of the Einstein attribution, finding that an obscure 1975 publication by the Wildlife Management Institute mentions the quote and attributes it to Einstein. What is pretty clear is that by 1983, novelist Rita Mae Brown used the quote in her novel, Sudden Death.
For what it's worth, Einstein did say something which had somewhat of a similar rhetorical thrust, but it didn't involve insanity and it wasn't nearly so solipsistic. In 1946, in the New York Times Magazine, Wikiquote finds this passage:
Many persons have inquired concerning a recent message of mine that "a new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move to higher levels." Often in evolutionary processes a species must adapt to new conditions in order to survive. Today the atomic bomb has altered profoundly the nature of the world as we know it, and the human race consequently finds itself in a new habitat to which it must adapt its thinking. In light of new knowledge…an eventual world state is not just desirable in the name of brotherhood, it is necessary for survival... Today we must abandon competition and secure cooperation. This must be the central fact in all our considerations of international affairs; otherwise we face certain disaster. Past thinking and methods did not prevent world wars. Future thinking must prevent wars.
Of course, this doesn't make for as pithy a denunciation of sports professionals, so it doesn't get used. That said, it did make me think of two others that are similarly misquoted.
Emma Goldman: If I can't dance....
This one is a bit harder for me to refute, simply because I like it so much in its simplest, misquoted form. There are several variants, but the pithiest is, "If I can't dance, it's not my revolution!" Happily, the quote is a fairly genuine representative of the original thought, but the quote is a paraphrase of Emma Goldman, the early 19th century anarchist, and not a pithy declaration by her. Again from Wikiquote, the full quote comes from Living My Life:
At the dances I was one of the most untiring and gayest. One evening a cousin of Sasha, a young boy, took me aside. With a grave face, as if he were about to announce the death of a dear comrade, he whispered to me that it did not behoove an agitator to dance. Certainly not with such reckless abandon, anyway. It was undignified for one who was on the way to become a force in the anarchist movement. My frivolity would only hurt the Cause. I grew furious at the impudent interference of the boy. I told him to mind his own business. I was tired of having the Cause constantly thrown into my face. I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from convention and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy. I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to become a nun and that the movement would not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it. "I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody's right to beautiful, radiant things." Anarchism meant that to me, and I would live it in spite of the whole world — prisons, persecution, everything. Yes, even in spite of the condemnation of my own closest comrades I would live my beautiful ideal. (p. 56)
So yes, Goldman was basically saying that if she couldn't dance, she didn't want to be part of the revolution. Somewhere along the way, someone came up with a pithy paraphrase of that. I wish we know who it was so we could quote him or her paraphrasing Goldman...
Of Burke and the necessary conditions for evil
This is the one I looked up most recently, simply because, again, it sounded too good to be historically true. This one's usually attributed to Edmund Burke:
All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing
I could write about this, but quite frankly, it seems unnecessary, given the ongoing presence of a rather remarkable work of investigation into the quote. The long and the short of it is, Burke never said anything too close to this. The closest Wikiquote can find is this:
When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.
The aforementioned investigative work on Burke does counter the "triumph of evil" quote at its conclusion with this fully cited quote, which seems like a good one to close a blog entry on bad quotes:
It is an advantage to all narrow wisdom and narrow morals that their maxims have a plausible air; and, on a cursory view, appear equal to first principles. They are light and portable. They are as current as copper coin; and about as valuable. They serve equally the first capacities and the lowest; and they are, at least, as useful to the worst men as to the best. Of this stamp is the cant of not man, but measures; a sort of charm by which many people get loose from every honourable engagement.