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December 25th, 2020 (Permalink)

My Christmas Present to You

Five family members threw a party on Christmas day to exchange presents. They agreed to meet at a conveniently-located hotel. So that everyone would receive a present but no one would have to buy more than one, the five decided that each of them would bring just one present to the party and each would receive one in turn. The presents would be distributed by the order of arrival of the party-goers, with each participant giving a present to the next to arrive. The last person to arrive would give a present to the one who arrived first.

After the opening of the presents, the five sat around the room drinking wassail and trying to figure out whose present went to whom. They made the following five statements:

  1. Abigail: "I received the present Barnabas brought."
  2. Barnabas: "I received the present brought by Daniel."
  3. Charlotte: "I arrived right before Abigail."
  4. Daniel: "Barnabas brought the present I received."
  5. Erle: "Barnabas arrived right after I did."

Perhaps it was the wassail they were drinking, which was spiked with apple brandy, but two of the family members were wrong in what they said. However, the other three party-goers spoke the truth.

Who received presents from whom?

Recommended Reading
December 23rd, 2020 (Permalink)

The New York Times Fails at Fact-Checking, Again

If you have free time over the holidays to do some reading, I recommend the following two rather lengthy articles. They're not holiday-related stories, but are worth reading if you're interested, as I am, in what's happening to The New York Times. I've excerpted below the most relevant parts of the articles and those that I want to comment on, and rearranged them to emphasize a pattern to which I want to call your attention.

First up is a National Public Radio article:

The New York Times can regain and deserve our respect by doing the following in the future:


  1. "Caliphate (The New York Times)", Peabody Awards, 12/18/2020.
  2. See:
  3. See below.
  4. See:

December 4th, 2020 (Permalink)

How to Fact Check Quotes, Part 2:
News Sources Vs. Familiar Quotations

As I mentioned in the first entry of this series1, amateur and professional fact-checking differ in many ways. One such way involves quotes, which present different checking problems for professionals as opposed to amateurs. In Part 1, we looked at four ways in which quotes can go wrong. In this part, we'll examine two broad categories of quotes that amateur quote-checkers should treat differently than the professionals:

  1. Quotes of News Sources: Professional fact-checkers spend considerable time and effort checking quotes from news sources in books or magazine articles. Part of the reason for this is the danger of lawsuits from interviewees who think that they have been libelously misquoted2. You, as an amateur quote-checker, don't need to worry about being sued for libel.

    When reporters privately interview a source, the only way to check a quote is to listen to a recording of the interview, check a transcript, or contact the source directly. Unlike the professional, you won't have access to the reporter's recordings or a transcript if any, and you probably won't want to contact someone directly to verify quotes; moreover, in most cases you won't have the contact information necessary to do so.

    However, if a quote is from a report on a public event then there may be either audio, video, or a transcript that can be checked. You should be able to tell from the context of a story whether a quote comes from a news conference, a speech, or a radio or television interview, as opposed to a private interview. If the quote is taken from a public appearance, there is a good chance that it can be checked.

    Don't assume that a quote you read in a news story must be correct. Most newspapers don't have fact-checkers, and we saw in Part 1 a case of quoting out of context in news stories by a major American television network. In that case the quote came from a phone call to the police, and a transcript was available that could be checked.

    While there have been some infamous cases of reporters who made up interviewees and their quotes3, bogus quotes or misattributions are not the most likely type of misleading quote in news stories, and in such rare cases you probably won't be able to fact-check it. Instead, you're more likely to find either misquotes or contextomies in news articles.

  2. Familiar Quotations: These are the kind of quotes that are frequently used as epigraphs to articles or books, and can often be found in John Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, hence what I call them. They are also among the easiest to check―at least, if there is a citation―and there are many reference sources in addition to Bartlett's for such quotes if they're genuine.

    Such quotes are also frequently used for propaganda purposes, usually taking one of two forms:

    1. Quotes from Famously Wise or Good People: If you have a cause you want to push, what better way to do so than to find a quote from some famously wise or good person that seems to support it. If you can't find an appropriate quote, then you can misquote, misattribute, or make one up; after all, it's for a good cause!
    2. Quotes from Infamously Bad People: This is the flip-side of the previous technique. If you want to condemn something rather than support it, what better way than to find some notorious baddie who supported it. Again, don't let the fact that the baddie didn't actually say it stop you!

    Since these are the types of quote that you will usually find in collections of quotes, whether in books or online, you can start by consulting reliable secondary sources, such as Bartlett's. Of course, it usually takes some years for a quote to make it into such reference works―the current edition of Bartlett's is the eighteenth, from 2012―so if it is a recent quote you probably won't find it.

    There's an unfortunate asymmetry in using such collections: If you find the quote you're searching for in a reliable collection of quotes, and it's attributed to the correct person, then you can be reasonably sure that it's genuine. In contrast, if you cannot find it, that is no guarantee that it is misattributed or bogus. In such a case, one thing you can try is to search for the quote alone, without including the author's name. If the quote is a misattribution, you may be able to find it in this way, but such collections seldom include bogus quotes.

    Bogus propagandistic quotes are sometimes checked by the professional, post-publication fact-checking groups. For instance, the alleged Hitler quote used as an example in Part 1 has been checked by Politifact and even The Straight Dope4.

    If a quote comes with a proper citation you should consult the primary source if you can find it. If it's from a book, magazine, or newspaper, you may be able to find it at your local library, but more and more primary sources can be found and searched online. In contrast, if it does not have such a citation―for instance, if it's just the name of the alleged author―consider it bogus until proven correct. A genuine quote should come with chapter and verse, and it's suspicious if it doesn't. Despite the relative ease of checking them, my experience suggests that famous quotations are rarely if ever checked in most publications.


  1. For earlier entries in this series, see:
  2. According to Sarah Harrison Smith, the lawsuit of Jeffrey Masson against Janet Malcolm over a magazine profile led to increased vigilance in fact-checking quotes at The New Yorker, which ran the article, and other publications. See: The Fact Checker's Bible: A Guide to Getting it Right (2004), pp. 64-69.
  3. For one comparatively recent example, see: Betsy Reed, "A Note to Readers", The Intercept, 2/2/2016.
  4. Straight Dope Staff, "Did Hitler ban gun ownership?", The Straight Dope, 6/16/2000.

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