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"Don't believe anything they say about me on the internet" - Nikola Tesla

Truth by consensus lies

Tom Peracchio
Computer Networking and Systems Administrator, Geek History

A few months back Tom Higgins wrote an article, "Things Voltaire Didn't Say."  I find it amusing, the many "famous sayings" that get thrown around that we all take for granted.

I joined Quora to share ideas and gain some insight as to the typical questions people ask about famous inventors.  I find myself spending a lot of time dispelling myths and legends. 

You will often see answers to questions on Quora start with the thought: “Before you ask why, ask if …”   In the same mindset, there are many questions asking what famous people meant when they uttered various phrases. First and foremost, before you ask what they meant, it should be important to establish the fact that the famous person in question actually made the statement. 

Besides establishing if the person actually made the statement, it also helps to know when and where it was said, to give the quote some context. One line out of context can be interpreted many ways. But one line when read as part of a speech has a greater meaning.

An example of context

One famous example of where a few simple words have a much greater meaning when you understand the circumstances is when President Ronald Reagan said the simple phrase, "Tear down this wall!" in West Berlin on June 12, 1987. 

That simple phrase became symbolic of the decline of the Soviet Union. President Reagan was calling for the leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, to tear down the wall which had divided West and East Berlin since 1961.

Things Nikola Tesla never said

Since I have unintentionally become the Nikola Tesla guru on Quora the number of Tesla questions I get is pretty consistent. As someone who is asked many questions about Nikola Tesla, I am often asked to explain things Tesla allegedly said. One "famous" quote by Tesla I see often is "If you only knew the magnificence of the 3, 6 and 9, then you would have a key to the universe.”  On one question on Quora I see people going through elaborate discussions of the relationship of the numbers 3, 6, and 9, and come up with theories what Tesla meant, if he had indeed made that statement. In all my searches I have yet to find any quote by Tesla that specifically mentions the phrase, "3, 6, and 9."

In terms of the key to the universe, there is another quote often attributed to Tesla, "If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration." It is another example of something published often on pages of cool sayings and famous quotes, but the quotes are never referenced as to when and where it was said. I have gone through dozens of websites that will sell me cool posters with this phrase on them, but I am still looking for the time and place these words were said by Tesla.

There is another question where I am asked if Tesla was right when he said, "the day science begins to study non-physical phenomena, it will make more progress in one decade than in all the previous centuries of its existence."  I could come up with a wild guess of what Tesla might have meant if he actually said those words.  I would really like to find a source of the orginal phrase from some transcript dating back to the time of Tesla, not a modern website written by a follower of Tesla. 

And Einstein never said this

Three of my most popular answers on Quora deal with Einstein's opinion of Nikola Tesla. The story is often told that when Einstein was asked how it felt to be the smartest man on earth, Einstein replied, "I wouldn't know. Ask Nikola Tesla". I have seen the quote often, and have searched for its origin, and have yet to find it. 

Truth by consensus

Lately I find myself preaching to debunk the mindless followers of many internet myths and legends. Google claims "Democracy on the web works." The phrase "truth by consensus" describes the philosophical theory of taking statements to be true simply because people generally agree upon them. So that must mean if the top ten hits on Google says it's true, it must be true. There's no need to check the facts. The internet doesn't lie, does it?

There are endless websites that list famous quotes, seldom do they list a reference for the quote. It is all part of the frustrating concept known as truth by consensus. If a dozen well known websites list a famous quote, who am I to question whether or not they actually said it.

"Don't believe anything they say about me on the internet" - Nikola Tesla

Why I cringe every time I hear someone say "Google it."


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