Quotes that boil down to "You're an idiot if you don't understand X"
March 10, 2022 2:23 PM   Subscribe

I ran into a quote that I found kind of funny today: "Only primitives and barbarians lack knowledge of houses turned to face the Winter sun" - Aeschylus. Are there more quotes like it?

Admittedly, I have no idea about passive heating and I guess that would put me in the barbarian camp.

It reminded me of a similar quote (had to look it up for the exact wording):

"The illiterates of the future will be ignorant of the use of camera and pen alike."
- László Moholy-Nagy

I was wondering if anyone else knew of any other quotes throughout history that boil down to "You're an idiot if you don't understand X". The more outdated and wrong, the better.
posted by weewooweewoo to Grab Bag (14 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Sir Arthur Eddington said about the 2nd law of thermodynamics, "The law that entropy always increases holds, I think, the supreme position among the laws of Nature. If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell's equations—then so much the worse for Maxwell's equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation—well, these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the Second Law of Thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.”

I think of this quote anytime someone talks of their new perpetual motion machine.
posted by Quack at 2:50 PM on March 10, 2022 [15 favorites]

A rather famous one on why rockets won’t work in space:

Professor Goddard, with his "chair" in Clark College and countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution, does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react ... Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 2:51 PM on March 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: As you proceed, keep in mind that basic critical thinking skills should tell you that the more "gotcha!" a supposed historical quote is, the more likely it is to be badly out of context, if not entirely made up. I took a few minutes to track this first supposed quote down (note, if the first couple pages of search results report the quote with no actual citation to the original author, that's your first clue something's amiss). It's a mishmosh of something Prometheus says in Prometheus Bound (i.e., not even something that can be accurately attributed to Aeschylus himself, for him personally to be right or wrong):
Still, listen to the miseries that beset mankind—how they were witless before and I made them have sense and endowed them with reason. I will not speak to upbraid mankind but to set forth the friendly purpose that inspired my blessing.

First of all, though they had eyes to see, they saw to no avail; they had ears, but they did not understand ; but, just as shapes in dreams, throughout their length of days, without purpose they wrought all things in confusion. They had neither knowledge of houses built of bricks and turned to face the sun nor yet of work in wood; but dwelt beneath the ground like swarming ants, in sunless caves.
This is an old-fashioned translation into prose, but you get the idea. It's a general statement about prehistoric man, not about Aeschylus's present day, or what you'd be an idiot not to understand in that present day. Also, Aeschylus is a famously difficult author, but I looked at the Greek and he doesn't even use the famous Greek "barbaroi," much less "primitives," he just says νηπίους ὄντας, "being like children/childish." And the line is "sunny" or "sun-facing," nothing about the winter sun.
posted by praemunire at 2:56 PM on March 10, 2022 [21 favorites]

The phrasing of your quote reminds me of “Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun” which was supposedly coined by Rudyard Kipling but became famous in a Noël Coward song.
posted by MadamM at 3:16 PM on March 10, 2022 [6 favorites]

In my software development career I have often had occasion to remind other programmers (and managers) that "post hoc ergo propter hoc" is a logical fallacy. I then translate it to "after the fact therefore because of the fact." If they insist that the program not working must be due to something having changed, I tell them that yes, the date, time, database rows, contents of uninitialized memory, user actions, security rules, Daylight Savings time, system administrative options, new software release and who knows what else may have changed. But no matter what they point to as having changed, that still does not establish a connection to the problem at hand. That is, correlation does not signify causation. It is amazing how many developers and managers still cling to this magical thinking today (at least in my opinion). End rant.

But on a more pleasant note, this is one of my favorite stories along this line:

A math joke from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon:

"There are three men on a train. One of them is an economist and one of them is a logician and one of them is a mathematician.

And they have just crossed the border into Scotland (I don't know why they are going to Scotland) and they see a brown cow standing in a field from the window of the train (and the cow is standing parallel to the train).

And the economist says, 'Look, the cows in Scotland are brown.' And the logician says, 'No. There are cows in Scotland of which at least one is brown.' And the mathematician says, 'No. There is at least one cow in Scotland, of which one side appears to be brown.'
posted by forthright at 3:17 PM on March 10, 2022 [13 favorites]

Response by poster:
As you proceed, keep in mind that basic critical thinking skills should tell you that the more "gotcha!" a supposed historical quote is, the more likely it is to be badly out of context, if not entirely made up.
Alright, this is pretty embarrassing on my part, I pretty much am just asking for a whole list of cleverly inaccurate quotes. I didn't even bother looking it up, I just saved it in my notes because it brought me glee. The distance of the one I put and that translation is really fascinating, it makes me want to do a deep dive on everything posted in the thread
posted by weewooweewoo at 3:24 PM on March 10, 2022 [5 favorites]

At one point early on it was suggested that doctors should wash their hands before delivering babies. During the massive pushback it was said “Doctors are gentlemen, and gentlemen’s hands are always clean."
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 3:35 PM on March 10, 2022 [3 favorites]

(I think it's an interesting investigation in itself, how quotes get mangled to fit popular tropes or received wisdom.)
posted by praemunire at 3:51 PM on March 10, 2022 [3 favorites]

I think of one from the stock market, "Past performance is no guarantee of future performance", although that's more of a truism and probably doesn't fit the criteria of the more outdated and wrong, the better. This nugget is pretty timeless.
posted by CollectiveMind at 7:24 PM on March 10, 2022

Danth’s Law – “If you have to insist that you’ve won an internet argument, you’ve probably lost badly.”

DeMyer’s Second Law – “Anyone who posts an argument on the internet which is largely quotations can be very safely ignored, and is deemed to have lost the argument before it has begun.”

Armstrong’s Law – “The phenomenon observed in discussions between Americans and non-Americans where any mention of America not being the best in the world at something dramatically increases the likelihood of the American arbitrarily bringing up the US moon landings as a non-sequitur to prove America’s superiority.”

And many more:

All freely stolen from Secretum Secretorum
posted by TheRaven at 1:22 AM on March 11, 2022 [1 favorite]

"Television: The word is half Greek, half Latin. No good can come of it.” — C. P. Scott
Maybe said by Scott between 1930 and CPS's death in 1932.
From the stand point of people who know enough Greek and Latin to do the etymology, Scott has become correct?
posted by BobTheScientist at 3:21 AM on March 11, 2022

I cannot pin down where these were first used, but the phrases "it should be intuitively obvious to the most casual observer" and "the proof is left as an exercise for the reader" came up more than once in my mathematics and physics courses/textbooks. And, yes, you guessed it, these are typically used in contexts where the topic at hand is anything but obvious.
posted by fikri at 7:12 AM on March 11, 2022

I rather thought you mean something with clever wordplay, like
There are 10 kinds of people in the world: those who understand binary numerals, and those who don't.
But they are pretty nerdy jokes.
posted by kschang at 7:17 AM on March 11, 2022 [3 favorites]

...the "story is told of G. H. Hardy (and of other people)
that during a lecture he said 'It is obvious... Is it obvious?' left the room, and
returned fifteen minutes later, saying 'Yes, it's obvious.'

—G. L. Alexanderson and D. H. Mugler, Lion Hunting and Other Mathematical
Pursuits, MAA, Washington, DC, 1995, p. 128.

That's my go-to complaint about things that are supposed to be obvious, but along the lines of all the commentary above, the next lines in the text are:

I was present once when Rogosinski asked Hardy whether the story were true. Hardy would admit only that he might have said 'It's obvious ... Is it obvious?' (brief pause 'Yes
it's obvious)."
posted by adekllny at 7:48 AM on March 11, 2022 [2 favorites]

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