Albert Einstein: “A Little Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing.” Quote or No Quote?
Ah yes, Albert Einstein. Perhaps number 3 or number 4 on the all time mis-quoted list. No, he didn’t say that thing about the disappearance of bees, and the disappearance of bee pollination being the sign that animal life on the planet, especially humans, was doomed within four years. No, he didn’t say “if the facts don’t fit the theory, change the facts.” And, as we’ve shown in an earlier episode of Quote or No Quote, he didn’t say “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”
But people keep crediting these kinds of quotes and ideas to Einstein over and over, even though they’re mis-attributing to good old Albert what other important and thoughtful people said first. And one of the most common Einstein No Quotes you see coursing around the internet is:
“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”
Sometimes the mis-quote-meisters add “so is a lot,” to this pithy quote saying about knowledge, and we end up with “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. So is a lot.”
It’s probably the type of thing Einstein would say, but there’s no evidence that he did. And if he had said it, Einstein, being highly educated and well-read, would undoubtedly know that he was quoting another highly-educated, well-read, and talented person, Alexander Pope, the 18th Century English poet. And the pity of all of this, is that the current cultural disease of applying quotes to only Einstein and Churchill and Gandhi, leaves out the other true greats, like Alexander Pope.
In his Essay on Criticism (written in 1709 and published in 1711, Pope wrote:
A little Learning is a dang’rous Thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian [peer-ee-an] Spring:
There shallow Draughts intoxicate the Brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
(“The Pierian Spring” refers to a mythic spring in Macedonia, near Mount Olympus, the waters of which were reputed to inspire Orpheus, the poet and musician in ancient Greek mythology. And notice that, in Pope’s original, it’s a “little learning” that’s a dangerous thing, rather than a “little knowledge.”)
Pope’s Essay on Criticism is a lengthy commentary, written in verse, on the purpose and place of the writers and literary critics in a nation’s culture. The Essay on Criticism is also the source of other great thoughts that have become famous quotations. These include:
“To err is human, to forgive divine”
“Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”
When Buzzkill Institute researchers urge me to stop being such a quotation tyrant, I always remind them that ‘”fools rush in to attribute pithy phrases to Einstein, Gandhi, and Churchill, where thoughtful Buzzkillers fear to tread.”