Are You Fooling Yourself


On February 15, 1988, this Nobel Prize-winning physicist died at age 69 of abdominal cancer.  At his death, he was best remembered as a brilliant young scientist who cut his teeth on The Manhattan Project and subsequently rose to the top of his profession after World War II.  A New York Times obituary described him as “arguably the most brilliant, iconoclastic, and influential of the postwar generation of theoretical physicists.”

Despite his importance in the scientific community and his status as a 1965 Nobel laureate, he was not well known in popular culture when he was asked to serve on the presidential commission investigating the Challenger space shuttle explosion in 1986.  During the hearings, he stunned the nation and humiliated NASA officials when he placed an O-ring seal in a glass of ice water and, in less than 30 seconds, demonstrated the vulnerability of the seal.  If NASA scientists had paid attention to this simple principle, he suggested, the disaster would have been avoided.

Despite his serious scientific credentials, he was a free-spirited eccentric who enjoyed playing the bongo drums almost as much as he enjoyed playing practical jokes on colleagues.  When once asked if he could explain in simple terms what he had done to earn the Nobel award, he said: “Hell, if I could explain it in three minutes, it wouldn’t be worth the Nobel Prize.”

He once offered an observation about science that applies to every aspect of life:

   “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself,

    and you are the easiest person to fool.”

Who is this man?   (Answer below)

THIS WEEK’S THEME:  “In What Ways Have You Been Fooling Yourself?”

The quotation in this week’s Puzzler makes a point that’s been made countless times over the centuries: it’s easy for human beings to deceive themselves.

The big problem in life, though, is that people in the middle of fooling themselves are not aware of their folly.  Even worse, in the middle of expressing a false belief, they may even be thinking they’re completely correct.  The eminent philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein expressed the problem this way:

   “If there were a verb meaning ‘to believe falsely,’

    it would not have any significant first-person, present indicative.”

In plain English, this means that it is virtually impossible for people to say “I am believing falsely” when they’re in the middle of falsely believing something.   Of course, they might — and often do — say in the past tense, “I have believed falsely.”  But when people believe something, at the very moment they express the belief, they invariably conclude that it is true.

For centuries, great thinkers have reminded us that it is common for people to engage in self-deception, especially when they’re describing personal traits and qualities.  This is true even when people begin their observations with the caveat, “I may be wrong, but….”  I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’ve ever met any people who said those words and really believed they might be wrong.

This week, think about how all of this this may apply to you.  The next time you begin to pontificate on some topic, simply stop and ask yourself, “What if I might be wrong?”  You may even want to go a little deeper and ask, “What are some beliefs about myself that just might be wrong?”  Think about it.  And as you do, reflect on these other quotations on this week’s theme:

   “The man who suspects his own tediousness is yet to be born.”

          Thomas Bailey Aldrich

   “The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions.”

          Leonardo da Vinci

   “Who has deceiv’d thee so oft as thyself?”

          Benjamin Franklin

   “We lie loudest when we lie to ourselves.”

          Eric Hoffer

   “No estimate is more in danger of erroneous calculations than those

    by which a man computes the force of his own genius.”

          Dr. Samuel Johnson

   “Our enemies come nearer the truth in the opinions they form of us

    than we do in our opinion of ourselves.”

          Francois de La Rochefoucauld

   “The most common sort of lie is the one uttered to one’s self.”

          Friedrich Nietzsche

   “Where we have strong emotions, we’re liable to fool ourselves.”

          Carl Sagan

   “The worst of all deceptions is self-deception.”


   “We do not deal much in fact when we are contemplating ourselves.”

          Mark Twain


On February 9, 1866, George Ade was born in Kentland, Indiana.  One of seven children brought up in small midwestern town, he was a teenager when he became interested in the newspaper business.  He went on to major in journalism at Purdue University, graduating in 1887.  In 1890, he moved to Chicago to take a job with the Chicago Daily News (later the Chicago Record), and it was not long before he brought his endearing country-boy ways to the big city.

Originally hired as a weather reporter, Ade took to the streets, asking local residents for their thoughts about the weather.  The practice of reporting the comments of regular folks proved so popular that Ade was soon writing a daily column called “Stories of the Streets and The Town.”  His first three books, all based on his newspaper columns, featured some of the city’s most colorful characters: “Artie” (1896), an office boy, “Pink Marsh” (1897), a black shoeshine boy, and “Doc Horne” (1899), a gentlemanly con artist.

In 1899, Ade’s “Fables in Slang” became a national best-seller (he went on to thoroughly “milk” concept, writing eleven additional humorous books of fables over the next several decades).  He also became one of the most successful playwrights of his era and, with the birth of the motion-picture industry, one of the earliest screenwriters.  He is not well remembered today, but in the first decades of the twentieth century, his popularity rivaled that of Mark Twain’s.  When a respected Oxford professor of literature visited America in 1915, he described Ade as “the greatest living American writer.”

I’ve long been a fan of “altered aphorisms,” sayings that parody or slightly tweak famous sayings.  Ade favored the form:

   “Familiarity breeds contentment.”

   “Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home

    for wearing what you like.”

   “Early to bed and early to rise is a bad rule for any one who wishes to

    become acquainted with our most prominent and influential people.”

He also authored these other memorable lines:

   “For parlor use the vague generality is a life-saver.”

   “Anybody can win unless there happens to be a second entry.”

   “‘Whom are you?’ he asked, for he had attended business college.”

   “If it were not for the presents, an elopement would be preferable.”

   “The music teacher came twice a week

    to bridge the awful gap between Dorothy and Chopin.”

Like Mark Twain, Ade traveled the country, enthralling people from the speaking platform.  And also like Twain, he had an irreverent streak that occasionally offended religious people.  On a lecture tour in the early 1900s, he checked into an Indianapolis hotel that was hosting a convention for a group of clergyman.  One of Ade’s companions, noticing the irony, asked the humorist how it felt being around so many members of the cloth.  Cleverly reversing the biblical story about Daniel, Ade replied:

   “I feel like a lion in a den of Daniels.”

PUZZLER ANSWER:  Richard Feynman


   “When describing ourselves,

    the great temptation is to confuse the ideal with the real.”

Until next week,

Dr. Mardy Grothe

Visit Dr. Mardy’s web site:

Check out Dr. Mardy’s daily Twitter quotations: @drmardy

Other books by Dr. Mardy Grothe:

“Neverisms: A Quotation Lover’s Guide to Things You Should

Never Do, Never Say, or Never Forget” (May, 2011)

“Ifferisms: An Anthology of Aphorisms That Begin with the Word ‘If’” (2009)

“I Never Metaphor I Didn’t Like” (2008)

“Viva la Repartee” (2005)

“Oxymoronica: Paradoxical Wit & Wisdom” (2004)

“Never Let a Fool Kiss You or a Kiss Fool You” (1999)

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