One of the great frustrations of my intellectual life, such as it is, is the problem of the disappearing quote. This is a function of having acquired a broad liberal education (in the sense of “liberal arts college” not the sense of “person to the left of Rush Limbaugh”) in a somewhat haphazard manner. My knowledge of physics is reasonably systematic, but for just about everything else, I’ve taken a bunch of classes, and read quite a bit of stuff, but never done all that much to keep the knowledge thus acquired organized. Which frequently leaves me in the position of knowing I read something, somewhere, once upon a time, and being utterly unable to find it.

This isn’t normally a problem, except I’ve taken up writing books, and when you do that, people expect you to, you know, cite sources and stuff. And that’s when my shoddy record-keeping and slightly dodgy memory rise up and bite me in the ass. This happened with How to Teach Physics to Your Dog, where I was absolutely certain that I had read somebody saying something to the effect of “Einstein was smarter than Bohr, but lost all their arguments because Bohr happened to be right.” I searched for the source of that for hours, but never found it; eventually, I put in a paraphrase of it without attribution, no doubt hopelessly muddying the waters for the next poor sap looking for the source of that line.

It happened again today. I’m planning to do a chapter in the book-in-progress about science and statistics in sports, and I spent a good chunk of time trying to track down another such quote, to no avail. The general sense of it is basically that in a typical newspaper, the section that assumes the greatest level of mathematical sophistication on the part of the readers is the sports page. I want this for use as a chapter-opening quote, a jumping-off point for the discussion to follow.

I did manage to turn up a prior instance of me trying to find the source of this, back in 2006. In that case, it was prompted by Patrick Nielsen Hayden on a con panel:

In the course of a discussion about class and education Patrick Nielsen Hayden mentioned a Noam Chomsky comment noting that the section of the newspaper with the most detailed discussion of history and economics and sophisticated mathematical analysis is the sports page. Which is avidly read by people who are often derided as being too stupid to understand what government is up to.

The comments there fail to produce a definitive cite, but I did turn up a couple of Chomsky interviews, here and here saying something that’s only sorta-kinda related. The better phrasing of it is:

When I’m driving, I sometimes turn on the radio and I find very often that what I’m listening to is a discussion of sports. These are telephone conversations. People call in and have long and intricate discussions, and it’s plain that quite a high degree of thought and analysis is going into that. People know a tremendous amount. They know all sorts of complicated details and enter into far-reaching discussion about whether the coach made the right decision yesterday and so on. These are ordinary people, not professionals, who are applying their intelligence and analytic skills in these areas and accumulating quite a lot of knowledge and, for all I know, understanding. On the other hand, when I hear people talk about, say, international affairs or domestic problems, it’s at a level of superficiality that’s beyond belief.

If I had to, I could use that, though the rest of it goes off in a direction that’s not quite the same sort of thing I’m after, and as a result, I don’t quite feel like it would be appropriate.

The truly maddening thing is that, at some point in the last seven-ish years, I’m fairly certain I read something that was almost exactly the line Patrick mentioned. I don’t think it was actually Chomsky, because I half-remember thinking “Oh, so that’s the real source of that line.” But I’ll be damned if I can find anything that fits. Some folks on Twitter suggested it might be Edward Tufte, but I can’t find him saying it, either.

So, once again, I’m in a pickle. I’m almost positive that the exact perfect quote I want exists, somewhere, but I can’t find it. And I’m virtually certain that if I were to write the line that exists only in my mind (as far as I know), somebody else would turn up with the correct citation, and it’d be tremendously embarrassing.

Anyway, that’s a long preamble to a pathetic bleg: if you happen to recognize the quote I’m looking for in my hazy description, and can point me in the direction of a source, I’ll be eternally grateful. Said gratitude being manifested in a thank-you in print in the final book, should the source turn out to be what I’m after, and get used to open the relevant chapter.

Comments

  1. #1 Lynn Dewees
    Pottstown, PA
    July 1, 2013

    Don’t know the particular quote plus I’ve never written a book. Couldn’t you just say, in the book, “here’s the quote as I remember it”? Maybe say, “I’m pretty sure it was “this guy” that said it but I can’t source it? If you source it for me, I will update that next edition.”

    A little honesty (almost) never hurts…..

  2. #2 Kaleberg
    July 2, 2013

    That kind of thing drives me nuts, but the internet has made it much easier. Of course, I’ve found myself mistaken now and then. My favorite case of trying to track down the reference was the case of Pergolesi’s Dog:

    http://www.kaleberg.com/pergolesi/dog.html

  3. #3 Eric Lund
    July 2, 2013

    @Kaleberg: “The problem with quotes on the internet is that they can be difficult to verify.” –Abraham Lincoln. ;)

  4. #4 OMF
    July 2, 2013

    Don’t make the quote. If you have to make it, put pseudonames in. If you can’t make up pseudonames — don’t make the quote!

  5. #5 Chuk
    July 2, 2013

    Sourcing that quotation sounds like something the old STUMPERS-L mailing list would have loved. It evolved into Project Wombat, but I can’t tell if that is still up and running now.

  6. #6 Steinn Sigurðsson
    July 2, 2013

    The real problem is that now is anyone tries to google the quote they end up at Uncertain Principles and the discussion about how no one can find the source to the quote

  7. #7 Chad Orzel
    July 2, 2013

    Update: The following is in Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World, page 371 of the copy at this Barnes & Noble:

    “When I was growing up, my father would bring home a daily paper and consume (often with great gusto) the baseball box scores. There they were, to me as dry as dust, with obscure abbreviations (W, SS, K, W-L, AB, RBI), but they spoke to him. Newspapers everywhere printed them. I figured maybe they weren’t too hard for me. Eventually I got caught up in the world of baseball statistics. (I know it helped me in learning decimals….)

    Or take a look at the financial pages. Any introductory material? Explanatory footnotes? Definitions of abbreviations? Almost none. It’s sink or swim. Look at those acres of statistics! Yet people voluntarily read the stuff. It’s not beyond their ability. It’s only a matter of motivation. Why can’t we do the same with math, science, and technology?”

    Not quite what I was half remembering, but it works, and doesn’t have the snotty “and, for all I know, understanding.” of the Chomsky quote above. Many thanks to Caryn Rogers on Twitter for the suggestion.

  8. [...] Chad Orzel, who thinks there’s a snappier version of this out there, but can’t find [...]

  9. #9 transcendentape
    July 3, 2013

    You are currently engaged in writing a book and wish to find an appropriate passage to open a section of said book. Call me crazy, but perhaps you should drop the format altogether and just write you want to say rather than trying to find someone that said it before you.

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