Fact-Checking: Tracking the Source

Our chief fact-checker shares her discoveries when verifying the June Meditation.

As the magazine’s chief fact-checker, I get to dig into some fascinating research. Because of the depth and breadth of each story, I plan to spend three to four days on shorter pieces, and up to a week (or more) on our longer feature stories.

That’s just round one. We also fact-check again when our layout pages arrive to verify any new information or subsequent edits that helped further clarify a paragraph or section within the story.

And round three of reviewing the revised pages has me proofreading, but also noting any updates on URLs, titles or stats.

One section that I figure will go quickly, but never really does, is Meditation, the last page of the magazine.

Take our June Meditation, which goes live tomorrow, as an example:

The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. —Albert Einstein

Jun13_EL_Medi_web

Now, this was what we decided to print after my research lead me to several conflicting statements. There’s even a Wiki page debating the source of various Einstein quotes. NASA blogged about Einstein and included this quote. Several bloggers cited this quote, but others varied the first sentence with “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious,” or “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.”

So who’s right? And did Einstein even say this? When, and where can I prove this?

Once a basic Internet search leads me down the rabbit hole, I start looking for attribution. If I can find the quote in a speech with a date and location, I can verify it with other reputable sources. For the Einstein quote above, I kept finding it cited in his essay, “The World As I See It.” When I searched for the essay, it came up on history websites, along with quotation websites. (Note: The narrower and more specific my search, the less results returned by Google, although that’s not a good judge since a misquoted statement can get repeated several times over on blogs, etc., to boost results.)

When I found the essay, I could find the source: Several reports said it was originally published in Forum and Century in 1930; it was included in Ideas and Opinions (Broadway, 1995) using “the beautiful”; The World As I See It was also published as a book, with the new paperback edition boldly proclaiming “The Authorized Albert Einstein Archives Edition” (ooh, that sounds authoritative!); others noted it was taken from his essay, “What I Believe”/”My Credo,” a speech which Einstein wrote in August 1932 for the German League for Human Rights (if you speak German, you can find the recording here); and some surmised that the speech pulled from earlier writing for the F&C piece. But the academic websites were all using “the fairest” vs. “the beautiful.”

The biggest issue: Since this quote was originally spoken in German, any English mention is a translation. Hence why I was finding conflicting reports in the language.

Although the message is essentially the same, my job is to make sure we are accurate, and that’s a challenge when we can’t call up Einstein himself to verify the quote. The search for the source can be a complicated process, but I’m always happily surprised by what I learn along the way. And now I can use “I’ve heard Einstein speak in his native language” as a conversation starter.

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