Groucho glasses on the Mona Lisa: Three tools for being better informed

mona lisaBecause I’ve been steeped in the study of Buddhism for decades, and have a reasonable degree of familiarity with the original texts (mostly in English, although I studied Pali at university too) there aren’t too many Fake Buddha Quotes that have taken me in. There were three or four that I’d come across repeatedly in books on Buddhism, often by respected authors, that had me completely fooled, but most of the fakes circulating on Twitter and Facebook stood out like novelty Groucho glasses on the Mona Lisa.

Once I started researching the more obviously fake Buddha quotes, however, I realized that quotes sites have no quality control whatsoever, and that many publishers apparently don’t either. And so I started to question many of the other quotes I came across and that I’d often used in my teaching. That quote from Anaïs Nin, “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom”? Not by her at all! Petit-Senn’s “It’s not what we have that constitutes our abundance, but what we appreciate”? If it’s anywhere in his works, I haven’t been able to find it. Einstein’s thing about fish climbing trees? Ridiculous!

Now I check almost every quote I find before deciding whether or not to pass it on. Many of the quotes ascribed to the Founders of the US turn out to be patent fakes, serving political ends. Most Einstein quotes turn out to be fakes as well.

It’s all too easy to be taken in by fake information. David N. Rapp of the Department of Psychology and School of Education and Social Policy, Northwestern University, who has studied why we succumb to false information, points out that “We’re bombarded with tons of information all day; it’s a nightmare to critically evaluate all of it.”

Rapp says it’s not that we’re lazy, “though that could certainly contribute to the problem. It’s the computational task of evaluating everything that is arduous and difficult, as we attempt to preserve resources for when we really need them.” I’m not sure if I quite get the distinction between being lazy and avoiding doing something that seems arduous, however!

Anyway, Rapp makes three suggestions to avoid falling into the misinformation trap, and I’d like to present those and comment on them in relation to fake quotes, rather than the original context of not memorizing junk info:

Critically evaluate information right away.

That may help prevent your brain from storing the wrong information. “You want to avoid encoding those potentially problematic memories,” Rapp said.

I’d suggest assuming that any quote you see is fake or falsely attributed until proven otherwise. Based on my past experience, 90% of the time you’ll be correct. Of course if you don’t mind the fact that our society is drowning in bogus information, and your sense of personal integrity doesn’t extend to caring about whether what you say (or quote) is true or not, then feel free to ignore this advice!

Consider the source

People are more likely to use inaccurate information from a credible source than from an unreliable source, according to Rapp’s previous research. “At this point, it’s even clear to Donald Trump’s proponents that his words are often nonsensical,” Rapp said. “But his strong supporters who want him to be right will do less work to evaluate his statements.”

I’ve had people tell me that a quote from an unknown source is actually by x. Their source for this information? The internet. Yup, “I read it on the internet, so it must be true,” is a guiding principle for many people. Unfortunately, quotes sites, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc., are not bastions of fact-checking. Just because a quote pops up on your social media feed doesn’t mean it’s accurate or correctly attributed.

Beware of truthy falsehoods.

“When the truth is mixed with inaccurate statements, people are persuaded, fooled and less evaluative, which prevents them from noticing and rejecting the inaccurate ideas,” Rapp said.

Why do we reflexly hit the share button when we see a quote? It’s because it pushes an emotional button. Those who pass on fake information are often trying to manipulate you, relying on your emotional responses overruling your rational mind. Perhaps the quote outrages us. Perhaps it generates a gleeful sense that “This will show those right wing gun-nuts/anti-2nd amendment liberal traitors!” In the case of a Fake Buddha Quote it may just be that sense of “I agree with this!” (Subtext: “The Buddha agrees with me! I must be so wise!”)

When you notice your emotions surging upon seeing a quote on social media, pause. This is a danger sign. It’s advance notification that you’re about to be someone else’s tool. Pause, take a breath, and then (maybe) do a little digging around to see if the quote’s actually genuine or not. (Hint: just because you see it on a bunch of webpages doesn’t mean it’s genuine!)

These three steps will help you be a more conscious and conscientious sharer. And that’s important. As Einstein said, “Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted in important affairs.” Of course Fake Einstein Quotes abound, but as it happens this one is genuine. It comes from the piece of writing he was engaged in at the time of his death.

10 thoughts on “Groucho glasses on the Mona Lisa: Three tools for being better informed”

  1. Great post. Sometimes it feels like social media are conducting a secret race between the fake Buddha quotes and the fake Dalai Lama quotes. Once you’ve read enough of the actual source material, you get a feel for the fishy stuff.

    (Speaking of which, Mark Twain was supposedly responsible for this: “When you fish for love, bait with your heart, not your brain.” Sadly, the only source I’ve seen cited for that is “Notebook, 1898.” It’s hard to believe this sentiment came from the same man who said, “Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig [Jane Austen] up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” Assuming that he really did say that in a letter of 13 September 1898.)

    1. The “fish, love, bait” quote is in “The Quotable Mark Twain,” which seems to be well-researched, so I suspect it’s his after all. But you never know!

  2. All those quotes circulating on the social networks are just for entertainment and nothing else. Nobody is getting any wiser or closer to awakening. People who post them seek attention thru’ which they get ego gratification. Authenticity of the quotes are forsaken for the style. People who receive them have a millisecond to evaluate the quote, and then move on to the next one. Entertainment for the masses.

    1. I suspect the quotes serve the purpose of validating people’s spiritual aspirations (without them having to actually do any work on themselves) and also of allowing them to associate themselves publicly with the words of the famous. In other words, people are showing off to themselves and others.

      1. Yes, that is so right! Instead of deflating their ego (the self), they are inflating it with the very same teaching! People just don’t get the message! The whole (beautiful) teaching became a meaningless fad. Sad…

        1. I’m happy to post your comment, Johnny. I removed the link though, since it was behaving very strangely in my browser. It refreshed the page 12 times in the space of a few seconds and disabled the back button. Anyway, it was a sad sight!

          1. Oh sorry to hear that. I’ve tested it on my Android and it was fine. BTW. didn’t know how else can pass photo… Br

      2. As a laymen Buddhist I do appreciate original quotes from Gautama.

        Notwithstanding plagiarism or non-disclosure of the author of quotes,it is my understanding that “Buddha” is a title rather than a name.

        Are there any Buddhist quotes not written or spoken by the original Buddha that would be considered authentic Buddha quotes?

        Buddha (not enlightened)

        1. The term “Buddha” means “awakened one” and it is as you say a title, but used without qualification it’s the title of the historical individual, Gotama, the Sage of the Sakyans. When a quote is ascribed to “the Buddha” it’s being ascribed to Gotama.

          In the early tradition it was considered that there were Buddhas before Gotama, and some of those are named and there are stories about them. I think it’s safe to assume they’re mythical, but it’s not impossible that people did get enlightened before the Buddha and simply didn’t manage to establish a sufficiently stable community for their teachings to be passed down. Anyway, if they ever existed, those earlier Buddhas didn’t leave any scriptures behind. (Interestingly, the story of Gotama having been sheltered from the world and seeing the famous “four sights” is a story about an earlier Buddha, not Gotama himself. It never happened to him!)

          There’s an early legend of Metteyya (Maitreya) the Buddha to come. I think he might only be mentioned once in the early scriptures. There’s no teachings from him — yet.

          In the Mahayana tradition there are other Buddhas who appear in the sutras, although Gotama is the Buddha who most often makes an appearance — albeit in a highly mythologized form. I’ve studied some of the Mahayana sutras, but not for a long time, and my recollection is that mythological Buddhas — Amitabha, etc — are referred to a lot, and described, but not often quoted. If they are, then the attribution would (I think) generally go to the Sutra, and not to that particular Buddha — it being recognized that these are literary and mythical figures. For example, quotes from the Heart Sutra are attributed to “the Heart Sutra,” not to Avalokiteshvara, who is supposed to have taught it. (Avalokiteshvara is an advanced Bodhisattva and not a Buddha per se, but I think the same principle applies.)

          Now of course Buddhists from the Theravadin school don’t accept the Mahayana Sutras as authentic, so even if Buddhas from those teachings are quoted they won’t be universally accepted as authentic. So your question of whether there are teachings from other Buddhas that are considered authentic Buddha quotes, the question arises, considered by whom?

          Your sign-off is rather strange. “Buddha” means “Awakened One,” and so “Buddha (not enlightened)” is an oxymoron. It would also be considered an extremely grave fault to take the title “Buddha” if you’re not fully awakened.

          1. Thank you,although I was aware of different types of Buddhism I had never considered exploring these,thinking I would be judgemental,but perhaps more so out of laziness and picking what already affirms my own beliefs and prejudices.

            Residing in SE Asia has made me question the authenticity of many English language meditation centres-retreats, mostly due to their monetary demands.Hence my tendency to seek affirmation that one could acquire awakening or some degree of Buddhist wisdom via self practice.

            It was not necessary to emphasize my original question,I apologise for my previous sign off.


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