Friday, December 8, 2023

Quotes on Magic and Science


There are thousands of quotable quotes associated with presidents, geniuses, educators, athletes, religious and military leaders, great builders, lawmakers, artists, authors, and actors.  But among these are certain quotations you know immediately to be false—my current favorite is “The problem with quotes found on the Internet is that they are often not true,” attributed to Abraham Lincoln.

Of course, that's an obvious joke - unlike a famous Gandhi quotation, “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” that is by many accounts a misattribution.  Yet the exhortation sounds impressive and true, because it embodies the truths and actions central to the man in his lifelong activist career. 

Truth value is contained in the context of the quotation itself, which can be judged to be off-center if it references the unknowable future or contradicts or compromises certified statements by the same person.  As humorous as Abe could be (and he frequently was), in no way could he have foreseen the advent of digital communication.  (He also said, referencing his homeliness, “Honestly, if I were two-faced, would I be showing you this one?” in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858.)

But there are cases less clearly resolved.  Just last month, Jamie O’Boyle and I presented in short form our findings on The Disney Effect, in honor of the centennial of the Walt Disney Company, at the Sixth TEAAS –Themed Experience & Attractions Academic symposium in Orlando, Florida. Part of our coverage was about the Disney branding Magic—starting with what magic actually means.  Among our citations was science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, best known for his consulting on “2001: A Space Odyssey.”  In one of Clarke’s many media interviews, he is quoted as remarking “Magic is just science that we don’t understand yet.”


Here is where the quote-check issue arose.  At one of the seminar tables, a person or persons objected, raising doubts that Clarke ever made such a statement.*  A cursory search later on to review our sources showed a significant number of citations of this statement, including one on a T-shirt  My suspicion is that this critic was simply unfamiliar with this version of meaning, assuming it to be a misquote or falsely attributed--because it did not match the writer’s better-known and easier to find written quotation, his self-proclaimed Third Law, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” 

Both quotations are freely cited online.  There is no misquotation or misattribution to be resolved.  (A misquotation, for example, would be “Money is the root of all evil,” instead of the actual phrasing “The love of money is the root of all evil” (Timothy 6:10, King James).  A posing as B.  But Clarke’s two quotes are clearly separate, consistent with one another, and neither is difficult to find. Clarke’s Third Law, his most famous, comes from Profiles of the Future (1973). The shorter, pithier one is a paraphrase by the same author that appeared in an Australian radio interview transcript also treating the future of technology.  Spoken word quotations may be harder to locate and validate than the written kind, but it is often possible.

However, there is another angle involved here.  Our presentation was not a literary study; we simply cited the “Magic” statement as a way of moving thought forward.  The issue is not Arthur C. Clarke’s output or opinions, but the idea of what magic might be and how it operates.  The citation issue must be considered a sidebar to the theme of the presentation.  This was the legacy of the Disney company and its innovations outside the parks, operating full force in the world beyond.  The quotations was never an issue germane to our presentation, nor is that why it was featured.  Sourcing and authenticity shouldn’t become a stumbling block to understanding.  It is the idea of magic itself and how its definition is constructed that was central. 

Perhaps the principle to keep in mind is not to believe everything you hear at a conference – at a table or behind the lectern - and especially not if the authenticity inquiry creates a buzzy diversion from the main topic.  Now if Arthur C. Clarke were a Disney Imagineer? That would be a different matter of fact-checking.  

The prolific density of Internet information also means a careful path to truth can be blazed.  So always double-check the source of your quotes and keep in mind those profound, albeit fake, words of Abraham Lincoln: “The problem with quotes found on the Internet is that they are often not true.”  

*Thanks to friend and colleague Kile Ozier for bringing this issue to my attention.