Don’t believe everything you read

“The next best thing to knowing something is knowing where to find it.” — Samuel Johnson

I thought this famous Samuel Johnson quote would be an appropriate way to begin my blog. The problem is that Johnson never actually said this, despite the fact that you’ll find this attributed to him on a number of different quotation websites. None of these websites identified the original source of the Johnson quote, so I decided to dig a little deeper. The Apocrypha section of Frank Lynch’s Samuel Johnson Sound Bite Page identifies this quote as a corruption of something Johnson did say, which was recorded by James Boswell in his Life of Johnson. The actual Johnson quote is:  “Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it.” I confirmed this by searching the text of Boswell’s Life of Johnson online.

This illustrates a few important lessons about evaluating sources of information:

  • Don’t believe everything you read, especially on the Internet. Just because the same information appears on multiple websites doesn’t mean it’s accurate. Bad information spreads like a virus.
  • Not all sources of information are equal. Don’t rely on only one source for an important piece of information. You should always try to find multiple sources, as well as different kinds of sources.
  • Use reputable sources and find out where or who the information is coming from. Is the author or source identifiable, knowledgeable, and credible? What are their qualifications or credentials? Are they biased, do they have an ax to grind, or are they selling something? Are sources for the information cited, or does information appear in a vacuum without any way of knowing where it originally came from?

Research is like treasure hunting, and to do it well you must be skeptical, curious, discriminating, persistent, and willing to look beneath the surface.


6 responses to “Don’t believe everything you read

  1. Pingback: Knowing where to find it :

  2. Coincidentally, I had just read about that in “Nice Guys finish seventh. False Phrases, Spurious Sayings and Familiar Misquotations” by Ralph Keyes., an entertaining bathroom book.

    — Dennis

  3. I think Mark Twain said: “It’s not what we don’t know that hurts us, it’s what we think we know that just ain’t so.” Of course, I’m not even sure he said it, but it’s still a great comment 🙂

  4. I’ve long been a proponent of proper research–I even taught research fundamentals to film students for two years. If research is treasure hunting, then your blog is certainly a crucial key on the map. Keep it up.

  5. The form I heard for that was “The trouble isn’t that people are ignorant, it’s that they know so much that ain’t so.” I first saw it attributed to Josh Billings, not to Mark Twain. I should try to track it down…

    This blog is a nice idea. I think I’ll keep an eye on it!

  6. I think it is very hard to judge the reliability of information on the internet, because of its nature. False information is duplicated very fast.