…Only Mark Twain Never Really Said It


Remember this great old Mark Twain quote?  “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Of course you do. It’s one of Twain’s best. Only Mark Twain never said it. Or wrote it. Or had anything to do with it.  The closest Samuel Clemens came to that quote was this gem from Pudd’nhead Wilson: “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”

Now, that’s not the same thing at all, is it? That’s an attack on faith – something many of us can’t bear to give up.

The fake Twain quote by contrast is an idea we need, in order to feel superior to all those yokels who go around preachifying about things they “know” that just ain’t so.  It’s a common malady, much on display in the 2016 election. And so essential to us that over the years we forced Mark Twain to say it.  The truth is, this quote is spun out of the whole cloth of unattributable folk wisdom, like “A stitch in time saves nine” (which is a terrible rhyme, but has the strange distinction of being an anagram for “This is meant as incentive.” Amazing, huh?)

Our life and lore is full of necessary faux truths.  Here are a few to contemplate:

Ostriches do not bury their heads in the sand. Think about it: How would they breathe?  The image of head-burying ostriches gets debunked every couple of years, and then comes back to life, like a ghoul in a B Horror movie.  Why?  Because we need it.  Such a useful metaphor for the very human habit of choosing to hide from danger while leaving our butts exposed.

Lemmings do not run off cliffs to their doom.  This supposed tendency to mass suicide is preposterous.  It would be, well, suicidal.  No species could go on living like that.  The ugly truth is that the myth of the leaping lemmings was created by a 1958 Disney documentary called White Wilderness. The filmmakers forced a pack of lemmings off of a cliff, earning themselves an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature – and creating an enduring metaphor in the process.

Left-Brain/Right-Brain Duality.  Brain research observing the activity of over 7,000 areas of the brain proved that both hemispheres were equally active in logical AND creative activities. Proof positive that the left/right division is bogus.  But what would we do without this easy explanation of our OCD Aunt Meg, our dreamy poetic brother,  or our own inability to do algebra?

I’ll stop. I know this information hurts.  We cherish our faux truths. We cling to them for dear life.  But just remember what Mark Twain said:  “It ain’t what you know that gets you into trouble.  It’s…”  Well, you

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