Don’t trust, just verify

A while back, a Facebook friend put up a quotation attributed to Benjamin Franklin: “The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.”

Franklin was quite the quotemeister, but this one smelled fishy. For one thing, the Constitution doesn’t say anything about pursuing happiness. That’s in the Declaration of Independence. And Franklin would have known the difference, having helped write both documents.

When I started checking into the quote, I quickly discovered that essayist Thomas Frank had long since beat me to it. As Frank said, “The wording of the quotation reminded me less of Franklin’s well-known style than of mid-twentieth-century self-help.”

He chased the quote back through a 1992 Ann Landers column, through a 1960 magazine for high school English teachers, and made as far as 1944 with Franklin’s name still attached. Any earlier than that and Ben is not to be found. The quote does not appear in anything that we know Franklin wrote.

The earliest version of any kind that Frank could find was a couple of lines from an issue of The Christian Advocate for November 1881:

“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is an American’s inalienable birthright. He keeps up the pursuit of happiness, but very seldom catches him.

The point of this literary detective work is that the internet has made it way too easy to find a snippet of information and drop it into some of our own writing without stopping to find out where it really came from. It’s not always quote. Often it’s a statistic or a “finding,” such as saying that eating kumquats makes pimples go away, or that crime rates climb when the Red Sox fall more than 10 games out of first place.

Worse yet, the morsel of information often has a spurious attribution attached to it. “A 2007 report found that eating kumquats makes pimples go away.” Whose report? Um, I dunno, just some report. By somebody. Somewhere. Hey, it’s mentioned in 20 different places on the internet, so it must be real.

When you find a snippet of information that seems to fit in with what you are writing, don’t trust it unless you can find a chapter-and-verse citation of where it came from. And even then, try to track down the source and read it to make sure that it really says what you are about to claim it says. Often what you were about to copy and paste is someone’s poor recollection of someone else’s summary of a third person’s cautiously worded statement.

Yes, that can turn out to be a lot of work. So?



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