Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Correct attribution is hard, especially for the past

As mathematician and golfing visionary Doug Arnold wrote 3:33AM on Jun 10, 2010 (and I have archived the exact email, for the future historians of Google urban myths)
"Correct attribution is hard, especially for the past."

Doug does not do pro sports, I threw in the golfing reference as in US you have to be a sports celeb to gain street cred as a source of quotes. But he is a pro, and we are grateful for him for much other than golfing, see for example this.

Often one reads that Niels Bohr (or even Yogi Berra AKA "I never said the most of the things I said") said that
"It's hard to make predictions, especially about the future."

Anglo-centered webpages (see, for example, and ascribe the quote to everyone and her Anglo-Saxon mother.

W. J. Moore, in Schrödinger, Life and Thought (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1989), p. 320 refers to this as an “old Danish proverb” that Bohr was fond of quoting. All Danes, however, know that it was the cartoonist Storm P. who said it first:
»Det er svært at spå, især om fremtiden«.

Well, not so. The gist of what follow (to you ignorant of Danish - much is lost here in translation) is that it goes back to 1930's and 1918, and presumably earlier than that. In old fashioned way, a source for the claim is provided: MP in the Danish Parliament during late 1930's. Steincke, K.K., "Farvel og Tak", p. 227. 1948 / Vogel-Jørgensen, T., "Bevingede ord" p. 124 (Gad 1990).

So it was not Storm P. Then it is attributed to Markus M. Ronner (though Anonymous in the comments below says "The quote can't be attributed to Markus Ronner -- he was only born in 1938."), where the track -for the moment- is lost in the fog of Germanic citations.

Which brings us to the general problem of correct attribution. Sir Michael Berry puts it this way:

But one ought to get things in perspective, and so I offer (not entirely seriously) three laws. First, there is the fact that it is hard to achieve justice in the attribution of scientific ideas, and this leads to

Arnold's Law (after the famous Russian mathematician): No discovery is credited to the right person. (Of course this applies to Arnold's Law too.)

The second law says that it is not only hard but impossible to achieve justice, because it seems that one can always find a precursor to any thought. So we have

Berry's Law: Nothing is ever discovered for the first time. (This too is self-referential.)

Here now is the third law, which I offer not because it applies to us (nor do the others, really) but because it is deep. It is a quotation from a philosopher:

Whitehead's Law: To come close to a true theory and to realise its precise application are two very different things, as the history of science teaches us. Everything of importance has been said before by someone who did not discover it.

Danish sources:
LUNDSKOV.DK :: Citater

Ifølge Politiken, Storm P. sagde ikke: »Det er svært at spaa, især naar det gælder Fremtiden«, det er et af de citater, man ikke kender ophavsmanden til.
• Ifølge K.K.Steinckes erindringsbog ”Farvel og Tak”,(s.227, 1948) var det en sprogblomst som faldt i Folketinget 1935-39.
• I T.Vogel-Jørgensens ”Bevingede ord” (Gad, 1990, side 124) oplyses bl.a., at Steincke på forespørgsel har oplyst, at han ikke huskede hvem der havde sagt det.
• Ordsproget omtales også i en den norske ”Bevingede ord”. Her skriver man: ” Det er vanskelig å spå - især om fremtiden, setning som har vært tillagt den da. forf. R. Storm Petersen. Dette er ikke riktig, og opphavet er usikkert. Ifølge den da. politiker K. K. Steincke (1880-1963) i Farvel og Tak, 227 (1948) er den falt i det da. Folketinget i tiden 1935-39, men verken Steincke eller andre har kunnet angi opphavsmannen. ”
• I art. ”9250”, i det norske tidsskrift Samtiden 1918, siger prof. Fredrik Paasche: ”Det er en vanskelig sak å spå om fremtiden.” At Paasche ikke bruker den vanligste formen, eller føyer til ”som bekjent” el.l., tyder på at sentensen er yngre enn 1918.”
• I ”Den store citatbog” af J.B. Holmgård (Reitzels forlag, 2.oplag 1993, s.118), er citatet ”Det er svært at spå, især om fremtiden” tilegnet Markus M.Ronner m.fl.


FeRD said...

Entertaining and insightful post; I came upon it via a link from the WikiQuote page for Niels Bohr.

I just wanted to let you know that the Michael Berry link towards the bottom is damaged; it currently points to
(...but works fine, if you remove the blogger hostname at the beginning).

Anonymous said...

The quote can't be attributed to Markus Ronner -- he was only born in 1938.

Anonymous said...

But it is not hard at all to make predictions. Especially not about the future. The future is in fact the only thing you can make predictions about.
The only difficulty lies in predicting correctly.

Sorry for spoiling this old joke ;)

Unknown said...

Well, you don´t really spoil it. I would put it that: "at spå" is to predict correctly, whereas "at forudsige" is to predict.

Ben Thuriaux-Aleman said...

Thank you for this. It is one of my favourite sayings and I am glad I finally have a definitive source.