Adventures in Fact-Checking: Einstein Quote Edition

I spent Friday morning working on my first ever syllabus, for the discussion sections of an upper-level undergraduate research methods course. I was thinking of including a somewhat cheesy quote but I couldn’t remember who had said it: “If we knew what we were doing, we wouldn’t call it research.” A quick Google search revealed that the quote was almost always attributed to Albert Einstein. “Awesome!”, I thought. Always great to have an Einstein quote. But, a nagging voice in the back of my head pointed out that not one of those attributions was sourced.

Twenty minutes later, I’d exhausted my usual sources (Google scholar, Google books, etc.) and still no authoritative citation. An online consult with a librarian and some reference works on quotations revealed nothing, but did point me to the Einstein Archives Online. I dashed off an email and was delighted to get a response a few hours later: they couldn’t find anything in the usual places (the usual places mostly consisting of The Quotable Eisntein). They couldn’t assure me that Einstein hadn’t said it, but they had no obvious evidence that he had.

So, what to make of all this? Did Einstein say the attributed quote, but perhaps never in a formal or written setting? If not, who did? When did it first become associated with his name? I don’t know, and I’m out of time and energy to investigate. But I am pleased that I could draw on the expertise of a reference librarian, an archivist, and the entirety of the Google books and scholar databases from my desk in a handful of minutes. It’s a fun time to be a researcher.



  1. Austen

     /  September 6, 2010

    Wow, interesting post. As a methods teacher and a budding sociologist, where does a theory of power fit in your research? How does a sociologist study power? What kinds of methods are available?

    • Power is so broad.. I recommend starting with Lukes’ Power: A Radical View. Then move on to Foucault (Discipline and Punish and some of the essays on Power). Then re-assess your question, and ask, when I say I want to study power, what do I mean? There are at least 4 different answers corresponding to Lukes 3 types of power and Foucauldian power as a different thing (I discussed some of this in previous posts, e.g. this silly post. Once you’ve narrowed down a bit theoretically, you can move to the empirics.. and hopefully someone more qualified than me!

      • Austen

         /  September 7, 2010

        Defining power seems difficult, I would agree. But it seems the actual problem, as far as the research that you and other sociologists do, has to do with methods. Lukes and Foucault tell us what power is, in their formulations. But do they tell us how to study power? I don’t think so, though I may be wrong.