Charles Petzold

Garbage Cut, Garbage Pasted

August 8, 2006
Roscoe, NY

"Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities."

I love this quotation. It's pithy, it has a nice poetic rhythm, it has alliteration, it almost has a rhyme, and it conveys a powerful message.

But who said it?

A Google search (for the phrase "make you believe absurdities", for example) gets over 100,000 hits, and reveals that the quotation is universally attributed to Voltaire. However, unless you're luckier or more perseverant than me, you'll also discover that none of these attributions is accompanied by a reference to a particular work of Voltaire's.

So, is it really Voltaire?

The assumption has to be: Probably not. Unless somebody can find it in a book or a letter written by Voltaire, we have to assume it came from somebody else.

"How can you say that?" you ask. "Surely over 100,000 Web sites can't be wrong!"

Ahem. One appearance would be wrong; 100,000 is just cut-and-paste.

It really needn't be like this. More than ever in the history of the written word, we have to power to provide a citation for every quotation we use, either in a hyperlink or a good old-fashioned footnote. As more literature becomes available on line, we also have the power to do mass searches for suspect quotations, and establish their authenticity or phoniness.

(As might be expected, the quotation is included in the Wikipedia entry for Voltaire, which obviously has looser standards than the more researched and impressively studious Wikiquote entry for Voltaire, where the quotation isn't even included in the "Attributed" or "Misattributions" sections.)

We should all really try to avoid perpetuating unattributed quotations, even if it's a really, really good quote that you really, really want to use. "I got it off some Web site" at best shows laziness, and at worse, a complete disregard for the truth.

Remember: "Those who can make you believe a spurious quotation can make you commit mental prostration."

I said that.