Archive for 2010/03/14

The risks of using quotations

I guess there are few people reading this blog who don't recognize the guy on the picture. Einstein was not only one of the brightest ever; he's a true icon. But he's also probably one of the people who has been misunderstood and mis quoted the most. When I say mis quoted I don't only mean that people falsely state that Einstein has said something. We also have the situations where his quotations are used in the wrong context and as an alternative to true arguments.

I'm here especially thinking about the more vague quotations, which does not directly refer to specific numbers or research, but those nice oneliners which build up quotation databases.

Direct misquotations
When it comes to the direct misquotations we for example have "No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong". This quotation is discussed in the Swedish skeptic organization VoF latest number of Folkvett by Sven Ove Hansson. The quotation is today used by climate skeptics but when Hansson tracked the quotation, it became clear that the sources does not point to Einstein ever stating this. Well, of course he might, but there is no preserved evidence for this and the source from which the quotation derive, points to a text where Einstein says no such thing.

Quotations out of context
It's all relative. If there is a statement which is pinned to Einstein this is probably it. But it's important to remember that he was talking about the laws of physics and his theories. He was not talking about health issues, history descriptions and morale. You can therefore not use his quotation as an argument for these areas.

Quotations instead of arguments

This is too often used in combination with direct misquotations and quotations out of context. In a debate, someone is pressed for arguments, validating a claim, but instead of giving this, a person present a quotation from someone else.

Today, we're debating the best practices in agile software development. Scrum or Kanban? Lean software development or not? XP or RUP? These discussions too often fall back to quotations made by the big guys like Mike Cohn, Jeff Sutherland, Mary Poppendieck, Ken Schwaber. We should all be weary for falling into quotation traps out there. Also, we have another risk, which was not as evident in the times of Albert Einstein. We have the more ad hoc publications and blogs. I've been blogging for a couple of years now and much of the stuff I wrote in the beginning, I now believe to be false, simplifications or irrelevant. Perhaps I should delete those blog posts. Perhaps I should go over them, entering comments stating my current viewpoint. But I won't; for me, the blog is almost like journal, giving my current state of mind. Changing the blog posts afterwards would almost feel like changing the historic documentation. I'm very proud of that I've changed my mind over the years and I would be ashamed if I hadn't. But this does not mean that I would want anyone to use those old texts as the sole arguments in a discussion. As a complement to your own arguments, a quotation from someone else can help building your case, but a generic quotation is not an argument in itself.

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Categories: Agile