Tuesday, March 27, 2012

"Math was a mistake- I made it too hard"

(REMINDER- IF you are a STUDENT who wants to GOTO STOC 2012 but needs money to go then you should GOTO the STOC 2012 homepage and click on Travel Support. Deadline to apply: April 4.)

In the movie Oh God Book II God, played by George Burns, says
Math was a mistake, I made it too hard
Or at least I thought he said it. I have repeated this quote both in the blog and as a comment on Scott's blog. As I noted on my blog, if you Google
"Math was a mistake, I made it too hard"
all of the hits that you get lead back to me. This is still true. (Though it won't be after this post goes up.)

I thought it was a great quote so I am surprised it is not better known. FINALLY Oh God Part II came TV so I watched it just to see if what I've been quoting all these years is really in the movie. (Also, its a pretty good movie, for what it is.)

Alas, that is NOT the quote! What God really said was
"Mathematics, that was a mistake. I should have made the whole thing a little easier"
I think my version is better.

There are other misquoted quotes. My favorite: Stalin never said
The capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.
He did say:
The capitalists will furnish credits which will serve us for the support of the Communist Party in their countries and, by supplying us materials and technical equipment which we lack, will restore our military industry necessary for our future attacks against our supplier. To put it in other words, they will work on the preparations of their own suicide. (The Yale Book of Quotations (2006))
Both for George Burns and Stalin I am troubled- are we better off using the pithy version of the quotes, which DOES capture what they meant, or the original?

We have a similar issue when we teach- do we teach math the way it was invented or discovered (messy but motivated) or the way it is understood now (clean but unmotivated). Hopefully its not an either-or question and we can do some of both.


  1. Quotes: Verbatim, with source attribution, please

    Math: Mostly as understood, *including* the post-hoc motivation.

  2. Hmm, maybe you could give credit to both the shortener and the originator?

    "Math was a mistake, I made it too hard." -GASARCH, quoting God as played by George Burns

    (related problem: "The mind itself can make / A hell of heaven, or a heaven of hell" -- did Lucifer say that, or did John Milton?)

  3. The real Stalin quote is certainly a mess, but the real God as played by Burns quote is (to my taste) better: more elegant, with better timing, and a little funnier overall.

    For a frequently misquoted sentence, it's probably OK to quote it if you allow some wiggle room as to its actual validity ("widely attributed to Stalin", or the like). However, that's not OK if you're the primary one doing the misquoting, rather than just reporting on widespread beliefs.

    For the God/Burns quote, I don't see any reasonable way to misquote it without explicitly acknolwedging that this is what you wish had been said, rather than what actually was.

    I don't see this as the same issue as motivation in teaching. For one thing, few people claim to be recapitulating history as they teach, so historical fidelity just isn't an issue unless you choose to make it one in your class. And the real question isn't historical motivation vs. no motivation. Rather, it's historical motivation vs. after-the-fact motivation: sometimes researchers discover things for idiosyncratic or historically contingent reasons, and we only come to understand later why they were really important. In such a case, do you emphasize the historical origins or the reasons why we care nowadays? As pointed out in the blog post above, the best answer is presumably some of both.

  4. I like God's -- I mean George Burns channeling the writers' -- version of the quote better, too. As Anon #3 notes, that man had timing. (Also, Bob Newhart.)

  5. Aren't all quotes of god really just the paraphrasing done by humans who heard the original statement? As such, the Gospel of Bill can keep its version.

  6. He was telling a girl that math was too hard? What a horrible message to send.

  7. I saw a sign at Occupy DC that attributed this quote to Lincoln, "To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men."

    It is actually from a poem.

    Douglas MacArthur might have attributed the quote to Lincoln.

    Is the statement less powerful because it was said by Ella Wheeler Wilcox?