Wednesday, December 28, 2011


I’m increasingly troubled by the issue of provenance – how do we know what we read is in any way true or not.

Recently I wrote a white paper about the founding of the NHS, based on presentations by three eminent professors. One of them included a quote from Aneurin Bevan in his PowerPoint. The quote was:
“Illness is neither an indulgence for which people have to pay, nor an offence for which they should be penalised, but a misfortune, the cost of which should be shared by the community.”
I agree whole-heartedly with that statement – it succinctly sums up the issue at the heart of universal healthcare. But, as this was going to be a white paper, I felt I ought to reference it. That’s where the trouble began.

I read Bevan’s key work ‘In Place of Fear’ and it wasn’t in there. A quick scout of ‘quote websites’ on Google didn’t turn up anything. In fact, the only reference I could find on Google was to another presentation by the same professor, where again the quote appeared unattributed. So, I contacted the presenter who said he thought he’d noted it from the many-hundred page biography of Bevan by Michael Foot, but he didn’t have the reference.

He obviously also had a fruitless web search, because in his email he said: “The quote doesn't come up on Google, which makes we wonder if it was part of something Bevan said rather than wrote.” And then he added: “But it rings so true as a Bevan quote that I can't imagine anyone will challenge its authenticity.”

That wasn’t quite good enough for me, so I went further. I got in touch with the Aneurin Bevan Society, and the person who got back to me said they thought it was in his speech at the final reading of the NHS bill in 1948 and also mentioned the Foot biography.

I looked through Hansard for the years surrounding the formation of the NHS (not just ’48), but I couldn’t find it. I didn't have the time to trawl through the biography, so I fudged it in the paper – saying the professor quoted Bevan, but without noting the lack of source. So far, he was right. Nobody has challenged its authenticity.

Then again, within the last few weeks I was writing another paper based on a presentation and there were two quotes attributed to Gandhi. The good thing is that Gandhi is a bit more famous on Google than Bevan and it didn’t take long to find out that the quotes were probably spurious.

The first quote was:
“A customer is the most important visitor on our premises.
He is not dependent on us. - We are dependent on him.
He is not an interruption to our work. - He is the purpose of it.
He is not an outsider in our business. - He is part of it.
We are not doing him a favor by serving him. - He is doing us a favor by giving us an opportunity to do so.”
All well, good and laudable in a healthcare context. Anything that refocuses the work of clinicians on the people they are caring for gets the thumbs up from me. And, although I don’t personally like the use of ‘customers’ in a healthcare setting, I have seen enough family members receive poor customer care from the health service to hope this maxim takes root.

But I still had a problem with the quote – I wasn’t sure it rang true for Gandhi. Sure enough, Wikipedia’s extensive halfway house of uncorroborated quotes had it in storage – noting that the common attribution of the quote didn’t match the known facts of Gandhi’s life. Several websites seeking to affirm it as a genuine quote report that Gandhi said it on a visit to Johannesburg in 1890, but Gandhi’s first visit to South Africa was in 1893.

Something was screwy there. The Wikipedians and other editors noted its similarity to a statement popularised by an American entrepreneur called L. L. Bean. But no-one knew where he had got it from, or whether he coined it.

The second Gandhi quote was the famous “Be the change you want to see in the world” aphorism. As the first quote had proved probably spurious, I thought I’d better check this out. As a quote, it doesn’t appear in any of Gandhi’s published works, but it was attributed to him by his grandson, Arun Gandhi. So maybe it was genuinely something Gandhi said. I’d rate the chances of it being authentic as 50/50.

My problems with ascertaining whether quotes were true remind me of a piece of fact-checking I did when I worked for a Christian family charity. The founder of the organisation is a well-known public speaker and often tells stories as part of his presentations. One, which I heard on numerous occasions and I’ve heard told by another well-known Christian speaker, concerns a world-famous violinist called Itzhak Perlman.

The basic gist of the story is that Perlman (who was born in Israel in 1945) contracted polio and was crippled at a young age. He is now a world-famous concert violinist. When he plays, the audience have to wait for him to limp onto the stage on crutches and position himself.

One night at the concert hall, Perlman had just started a violin solo and one of the strings snapped on his violin. Instead of stopping, he carried on playing, rapidly transposing the notes as he went so he is played them on different strings than usual. When he finished, the auditorium sat in stunned silence for a heartbeat than explodes in rapturous applause.

Perlman signalled for quiet and hauled his crippled body upright. He turned to the hushed crowd and announced: “Ladies and gentlemen, all my life I have sought to make music with what remains!”

That’s the story. The moral – that whatever hardships in life leave you in some way deficient can be overcome – that you too, whatever your struggle, can ‘make music with what remains’ is uplifting. I saw people powerfully moved by the story; some moved even to tears.

I wondered if there was more to the story, so I Googled it. And that’s when I discovered there’s a small problem with it.

As far as anyone can tell, it’s not true.

The details are correct – Itzhak Perlman is a world-renowned violinist. He did have polio as a child and was crippled as a result. So far, so good. But the ‘with what remains’ story didn’t happen. It’s never been mentioned in any review of his concerts – although it has been noted that once when he broke a string, he entertained the crowd with jokes while his violin was re-stringed.

As says “Apparently if Itzhak Perlman ever did continue playing a concert piece after one of the strings on his violin broke, at least one newspaper considered the feat less remarkable than his performing a stand-up routine in similar circumstances.”

The slightly cloying sentiment isn’t the reason the story annoys me. What annoys me is the way it’s been presented as true, yet a 1 second search on Snopes reveals that it is most likely made up.

I think anyone who uses someone else’s words when they present should name the source, or at least check whether a story they tell actually happened. I do.

People – particularly those with a trade in telling feel-good stories and sticking them in books – might say ‘Well, it doesn’t matter whether the quote is genuine, as long as it sounds genuine, or has a good point to make.’ But if we’re just making shit up, then where do we draw the line?

We’re not even talking about centuries-old beliefs or legends from the dawn of time. We’re talking about people and events that happened within living memory. I work with someone who heard Aneurin Bevan speak at a public event in Tredegar. Gandhi wrote an autobiography, his various writings are still in print, and there have been several biographies about him. Itzhak Perlman is still alive.

So, how come so much misinformation can exist? How can sourceless quotes be taken at face value, or when sources are described, they are easily disprovable (thinking of Gandhi’s speech in Jo’burg three years before he set foot in South Africa – which incidentally wouldn’t be ‘South Africa’ for another 20 years).

I think these are issues in a healthcare setting – because clinical practice should be based on evidence and the facts should be right. I think it’s even more crucial in religious circles, particularly if you are trying to draw spiritual lessons from them.

Or to put it another way, if the facts are malleable when it comes to a violinist who still walks among us, how much credence should we give to anything said about a carpenter who disappeared from this earth 2,000 years ago? Why should we believe anything written about him or any quotes attributed to him, given the way modern, documented lives have been expanded and expounded upon?

Those are important questions. They show why provenance matters.

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