it’s better to know nothing than to know what isn’t so

Es­ti­mated reading time is 4 min­utes.

THE MAIN MAXIM that I try to follow in living the con­scious part of my life is a well-known quote by Mark Twain: “It ain’t what you know that gets you into trouble—it’s what you know that just ain’t so.” These are wise words and ones that, should you adopt them, keeps you on your toes. In fact, if you know nothing else, knowing this could make you a wiseperson.

Fol­lowing this bit of sagacity, one needs to ques­tion one’s every be­lief and utterance—or, at the very least, be open to in­tel­lec­tual chal­lenges of those be­liefs by others.

Need­less to say, my at­tributing that bit of wisdom to Twain proves its point, be­cause it was never said by Twain—at least not in those words! How­ever Twain said it, he was para­phrasing someone else!


Know nothing: photo of Artemus Ward.

Artemus Ward: “It ain’t so much the things we don’t know that get us in trouble—it’s the things we know that ain’t so.”

Will Rogers and Artemus Ward?

I learned this in an ar­ticle ti­tled “Bloopers: Quote didn’t re­ally orig­i­nate with Will Rogers” (The Morning Call, Oc­tober 25, 2017), where Bill White wrote about his use of a quote in an ar­ticle: “It isn’t what we know that gives us trouble—it’s what we know that ain’t so.”

Ex­cept he at­trib­uted it to Will Rogers!

To com­pli­cate mat­ters, Mr. White re­ceived a letter from a reader in­forming him, “Per­haps Rogers bor­rowed it, but it be­longs to Artemus Ward.”

If you look to GoodReads, you’ll find that they list “It ain’t so much the things we don’t know that get us in trouble—it’s the things we know that ain’t so” among Artemus Ward’s no­table quotes, as do many other sites.

Even more, list it among Twain’s.


Know nothing: cover of Ralph Keyes book THE QUOTE VERIFIER.

Yogi Berra?

For his re­search, Bill White turned to Ralph Keye’s The Quote Ver­i­fier, a book that demon­strates that few pop­ular quotes are prop­erly at­trib­uted. White wrote:

“Keyes wrote that this pop­ular ob­ser­va­tion most often gets at­trib­uted to Mark Twain, as well as to fellow hu­morists Artemus Ward, Kin Hub­bard and Will Rogers. Others to whom it’s been cred­ited in­clude in­ventor Charles Ket­tering, pi­anist Eubie Blake and base­ball player Yogi Berra.”

Keyes noted that Twain did ob­serve, ‘It isn’t so as­ton­ishing the things I can re­member, as the number of things I can re­member that aren’t so,’ but he said Twain’s bi­og­ra­pher re­ported he was para­phrasing a re­mark by hu­morist Josh Billings.

Keyes ob­served that Billings re­peated this theme often in dif­ferent forms, in­cluding, ‘I hon­estly be­lieve it iz better tew know nothing than two know what ain’t so.’ He con­cluded that Billings de­serves the credit.”

This sit­u­a­tion of using mul­tiple ver­sions of the idea be­hind the maxim and cred­iting mul­tiple sources is not like to be reme­died any­time soon.


Know nothing: photo of Will Rogers.

Will Rogers: “It isn’t what we know that gives us trouble—it’s what we know that ain’t so.”

In the lalaland of fake news

Ac­tu­ally, the re­verse of this maxim is also true: knowing what’s so can get you in trouble in a world where mil­lions of Amer­i­cans are help­less trying to dif­fer­en­tiate fact from pro­pa­ganda! I know that our public school system has never been very good at teaching young Amer­i­cans to think crit­i­cally and to ra­ti­o­ci­nate, but you’d think that sheer rep­e­ti­tion of re­sults would be an ad­e­quate learning experience.

But we have reached a point where, after decades of the Lim­baughs and Fox Newses mixing fact, opinion, and pro­pa­ganda to­gether in­dis­crim­i­nately, there are mil­lions of people who turn to the lie-tellers for facts and turn from the truth-tellers as liars. 1

Today, dis­sem­i­nating facts in some cir­cles gets you ac­cused of spreading vi­cious “lib­eral” “fake news.” 2

Ah well, as the Balkan people have long warned their chil­dren, “Speak truth, then run.” 3


Know nothing: twin photos of Josh Billings for 19th century stereoviewer.

FEATURED IMAGE: The twin pho­to­graphic im­ages of Josh Billings at the top of this page was used in 19th cen­tury stere­oviewers. Josh Billings was the pen name of Amer­ican hu­morist Henry Wheeler Shaw,who was al­most as well known as a humor writer and lec­turer as Mark Twain in the second half of the 19th cen­tury. (For more on this re­mark­able de­vice, refer to “The Stere­oview in the U.S.” by William Jaeger.)





1   Just think if every­body put the title of this post to use on a daily basis. Hell, they all prob­ably do—especially those who still be­lieve in trickle-down eco­nomics, finding weapons of Mass de­struc­tion in Iraq, Bill Clinton mur­dered 43 people as Gov­ernor of Arkansas, Hillary Clinton sold chil­dren as sex-slaves via a pizza parlor, and the Chicago Cubs won the World Se­ries in 2016!

2   If anyone knows of a gen­uine lib­eral or pro­gres­sive web­site de­voted to dis­sem­i­nating pro­pa­ganda as fake news, lease send me a link.

3   There are many vari­a­tions on this simple phrase (“Speak truth and run” is one) and many at­tri­bu­tions, al­though the Balkans is the area most often cited.



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