February 8, 2018

"It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so."

Who said that? The correct answer is fake Mark Twain.

The quote came up in conversation this morning (as we were discussing what we don't know about the 2016 election), and I guessed it was one of those quotes that got the name Mark Twain attached to  it to boost its worth and because it sounded like something Mark Twain might say.

I see it was used on a title card beginning the movie "The Big Short," which I didn't see, so the problem of the fake attribution to Mark Twain was timely 2 years ago and discussed at The New Republic, here:
In fact, as far as I can tell no one said that exact quote. According to Quote Investigator, the quote should be attributed to Josh Billings, who in 1874 wrote this in what is perhaps best described as “Krazy Kat English”:
A) I honestly beleave it iz better tew know nothing than two know what ain’t so.
B) Wisdum don’t konsist in knowing more that iz new, but in knowing less that iz false.
Insanely, the book "The Big Short" begins with a (correct) quote from Leo Tolstoy:
“The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of a doubt, what is laid before him.”
I guess the Tolstoy quote was too long and unfamiliar to expect a movie audience to sit there and read. How long would the quote need to remain on screen? I think when there's a longish text — since you don't know how long they'll leave it up — you get nervous that it will be taken away before you're done and that nervousness makes it even harder to read. And that Tolstoy quote stokes further anxiety with the early appearance of the phrase "the most slow-witted man." Oh, no! What if I'm too slow-witted to read as fast as this movie thinks people should be able to read! 

The fake Mark Twain quote is familiar, and you need only look at it to remember it and know what it means. And that's how fake beats real. Ironically, that makes the quote about falsity more true. And explains why Donald Trump speaks the way he does.

45 comments:

rhhardin said...

but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of a doubt, what is laid before him.

I was thinking just a couple of days ago of trying to explain Huffman coding to a very very smart computer guy. He was always so far ahead that he always took a wrong turn.

No, Huffman coding works backwards from that. Listen.

No avail.

Sally327 said...

This reminds me of the Ronald Reagan quote: “It isn't so much that liberals are ignorant. It's just that they know so many things that aren't so.”

So liberals would say that Reagan stole it from Mark Twain, thus making the circle complete.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

Makes me think of Rumsfeld who the media made great fun of for his "unknown unknowns"

"Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know."

Inelegantly phrased but so true. If you know you don't know something is one thing. But to think that is the end of it is to fall into dangerous traps. There are a lot of things that you do NOT know and you are aware that you don't know it versus....ignoring that there are a host of other things that you don't know. Those are the nasty surprises.

rhhardin said...

And that's how fake beats real.

Plato took writing as fake and speech as real. Yet writing seems to be all over.

Usually in that situation the real is a subgenre of the fake, rather than its opposite.

Ralph L said...

I don't quite see how Trump figures in this. Some of the things he said (Cville, Pussygrab) were true but outrageously misread by the outraged media.

MrCharlie2 said...

Of course you don't. Why would that be?

Ann Althouse said...

@Sally327

Thanks for remembering the Reagan quote. Don't know why that didn't occur to me as I was talking and writing about this.

Ann Althouse said...

"Makes me think of Rumsfeld who the media made great fun of for his "unknown unknowns""

Now, that one did occur to me before I got tracked onto the fake Twain quote.

Ann Althouse said...

"But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know.""

"Unknown unknowns" really is another way to refer to the things we "know" that just aren't true.

Ann Althouse said...

There's also the phrase (which used to be more common, I believe): You don't know as much as you think you know.

EDH said...

"The correct answer is fake Mark Twain."

Is that like faking orgasm?

From the time a woman is seven years old till she dies of old age, she is ready for action, and competent. As competent as the candlestick to receive the candle. But man is only briefly competent: ...After fifty his performance is of poor quality; the intervals between are wide, and its satisfactions of no great quality to either party; whereas his great-grandmother is as good as new.

Mark Twain
- Letters from the Earth

Ralph L said...

"Unknown unknowns" really is another way to refer to the things we "know" that just aren't true.

I would call those "unknown knowns."

Fernandistein said...

“The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already;

"If I could explain it to the average person, it wouldn't have been worth the Nobel prize." -- Nobel prize guy.

“but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of a doubt, what is laid before him.”

The writer's first statement about "the most slow-witted man" is obviously false, so why should I believe that "the most intelligent man" is not correct when he disagrees with the guy who wrote a false statement?

mockturtle said...

In a similar vein, Jonathan Swift in 1721 succinctly wrote: "“It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.”

Ralph L said...

Janet at JOM posted this at 7:30:
"If you get your info from the MSM most of what you "know" is not true & most of what you do not know is important." ~ Scott @ Powerline

Bob Boyd said...

@ Fernandistein

The full Tolstoy quote was actually:

“The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of a doubt, what is laid before him. Just sayin'”

Ann Althouse said...

"In a similar vein, Jonathan Swift in 1721 succinctly wrote: "“It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.”"

Religion. Politics. Love. And just about everything else that matters.

tcrosse said...

Epistemology is a branch of Philosophy which deals with these very issues of belief, knowledge, and truth. I think it's boring, and that's the truth.

mockturtle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

I would have attributed that quote to Will Rogers, thanks for the correction.

-sw

buwaya said...

Power and survival are quite reasonable.
Nature is all about reason.
Ultimately we do things to and with nature, and have to go by the rules, which have nothing to do with feelings.
We like to avoid looking at the reasoning involved though, and filter it all through emotion.

jaydub said...

"Unknown unknowns" really is another way to refer to the things we "know" that just aren't true."

No, unknown unknowns the way Rumsfeld used the term referred to things that exist which we don't even know exist, hence, entities about which we can know nothing.

Big Mike said...

Yes, just five years ago Barack Obama informed us that “We can’t drill our way to lower gas prices.”

Just slightly over a year into Trump’s Administration this morning’s Instapundit links to an article in the UK Daily Mail that the US just sold 100,000.barrels of light crude oil to to the Middle Freaking East!!!

Big Mike said...

I offer the above as an example of someone (Obama) “knowing” something that simply isn’t true. I offer that along with people who “know” that Donald Trump colluded with Vlad Putin to win in 2026, not to mention the people who think Trayvon Martin was the innocent victim of a white vigilante and the folks who think Michael Brown was kneeling in the street with his hands up and pleading with the patrolman not to shoot when he was gunned down.

Big Mike said...

Make that 2016, not 2026. Fat fingers on small keys.

mockturtle said...

No, unknown unknowns the way Rumsfeld used the term referred to things that exist which we don't even know exist, hence, entities about which we can know nothing.

Correct, jaydub.

gilbar said...

I always figured Rumsfeld meant you have 3 guys in 3 cars...
the 1st car has a working gas gauge: the guy knows how much gas he has
the 2nd guy Knows his car has a broken gas gauge: the guy knows he doesn't know
the 3rd guy does NOT Know his car has a broken gas gauge: the guy is clueless

which one is most likely to end up on the side of the road?

if you are aware of unknown variables, you can make sure that you cope (by making sure you start your trip with a full tank).

Michael said...

It has been said that any quotation that survives long enough will eventually be attributed to either Mark Twain or Winston Churchill. Or, rarely, W.C. Fields.

Fred Drinkwater said...

Didn't Rumsfeld also mention "unknown knowns"? That is, thing you know, but you don't know that you know them. I vaguely remember that term coming up in the discussion of the intelligence "wall" which prevented communication between agencies, of information which might have prevented the 9/11 conspirators from succeeding.
(Or was completing the set to include all four logical possibilities my own creation?)

Fred Drinkwater said...

gilbar: back in the days I was doing flight training, I was taught that FAA regs required the gas gauge to indicate no more than the actual amount in the tanks. Ergo, a broken gas gauge could be rendered legal for flight by taping a card over it which read "empty".
(Me? I was taught by an old-timer to never trust the gas gauge. Always dipstick the tanks before flight, and compute fuel flow v. time.)

Fred Drinkwater said...

(I seem to be developing a tic whereby I end all my posts with a parenthetical. Worrying.)

Fred Drinkwater said...

Thinking about unknown unknowns, and busted flight instruments...
An airplane departing Santa Barbara into foggy conditions went into the ocean. Investigation showed that the artificial horizon instrument had a failing gyro. The pilot had followed its faulty indications right into the water.
Now,, what makes this pertinent are these:
- The artificial horizon depicts a compelling simulation of reality. It's so hard to ignore that pilots are cautioned to cover a faulty instrument with a blank placard.
- There are several other instruments on the panel which, while not as visually compelling as the AH, can also be used to navigate. As long as one is willing and able to do a little brainwork.
At Santa Barbara, the pilot followed the visually compelling indications of the AH to his death. He ignored the warnings from the altimeter, vertical speed indicator, the turn-and-bank indicator, and probably the airspeed indicator. This, despite his having been trained to continually scan all the instruments and check for consistency in the story they are telling.
I leave the analogy to contemporary news reporting and folks use of other sources, and their historical knowledge, to the reader.

mockturtle said...

I leave the analogy to contemporary news reporting and folks use of other sources, and their historical knowledge, to the reader.

Point well made, Fred. And the artificial horizon will look even more compelling if it makes Trump look bad.

MikeyParks said...

On a related note, "Intellect is invisible to the man who has none." Schopenhauer

Bruce Gee said...

All movie quotes should be done in the Star Wars manner: scrolling away from you toward the stars, just before the Death Ship appears.

ken in tx said...

I suppose Will Rogers may have borrowed the quote, but, as pointed out by Unknown above, it is widely attributed to him. Also,I remember Ronald Reagan using it.

Leora said...

“It isn't so much that liberals are ignorant. It's just that they know so many things that aren't so.”

― Ronald Reagan

I suspect assigning it to Mark Twain and leaving out liberals makes it more acceptable.

Leora said...

Here's the video.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vAgURdLJobU

Mid-Life Lawyer said...

I was just listening to the Jordan Peterson 12 book, bought through the Althouse Amazon portal, and he used that Mark Twain quote in the first chapter. I just started it on my run this morning.

mikee said...

Ahh, the fun use of literary, historical, philosophical or religious quotes at the beginning of a movie to add some gravitas, or at least some hope of gravitas, to the drivel about to appear on the screen.

I recall as a college student going to see a Bowlderized R-rated version of Penthouse's dirty movie Caligula, and then writing a review of it for the university newspaper. The movie began with that famous biblical quote on the screen, "What shall it profit a man, if he should gain the whole world and lose his own soul?" Mark 8:36

My collegiate review pointed out that only a lot of sex on screen, cut in this version released to play in normal theaters, could possibly save this mess from utter critical condemnation by one and all.

The Godfather said...

“It ain’t what you don’t know” etc. OUGHT to have been said by Mark Twain, and so I will continue to believe that he said it. Just as Democrats and the liberal media (but I repeat myself) will continue to believe that Trump colluded with Putin to “hack” the election.

Howard said...

Stupid is as stupid does: If you want smart action, you need to always be aware of how stupid you really are. This is what fucked up Nietzsche and made him go totally insane: the mistaken idea that humans are on the cusp of uber/unter mensch transition.

Howard said...

Fred: Great story! The partial panel analogy is one of the best life lessons.

khematite said...

First time I ever heard that quote was during the 1980 presidential election when Walter Mondale said it about Ronald Reagan: 'It's not what he doesn't know that bothers me, it's what he knows for sure that just ain't so.' Mondale attributed it (evidently, incorrectly) to Will Rogers

Big Mike said...

But in the end Fritz Mondale had to campaign hard in his home state during the last week of the election to avoid a fifty state sweep. Maybe it was he who “knew” something that was not true?