Common Sense Is Nothing More Than a Deposit of Prejudices Laid Down in the Mind Before Age Eighteen

Albert Einstein? Lincoln Barnett? Apocryphal?

spacetime06Dear Quote Investigator: Albert Einstein’s astonishing theory of relativity is highly counter-intuitive. For example, the theory indicates that time can pass at different rates in different reference frames. This certainly challenges common sense. The following germane statement is attributed to Einstein:

Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.

Are these really the words of Einstein?

Quote Investigator: The earliest relevant evidence located by QI was published in May 1948 by Lincoln Barnett who was the former editor of “Life” magazine. He wrote a three-part series titled “The Universe and Dr. Einstein” for the April, May, and June issues of “Harper’s Magazine” which included a discussion of the theory of relativity. A version of the saying was attributed to Einstein by Barnett, but the words were not placed between quotation marks. Boldface has been added: 1

At first meeting these facts are difficult to digest but that is simply because classical physics assumed, unjustifiably, that an object preserves the same dimensions whether it is in motion or at rest and that a clock keeps the same rhythm in motion and at rest. Common sense dictates that this must be so. But as Einstein has pointed out, common sense is actually nothing more than a deposit of prejudices laid down in the mind prior to the age of eighteen. Every new idea one encounters in later years must combat this accretion of “self-evident” concepts. And it is because of Einstein’s unwillingness ever to accept any unproven principle as self-evident that he was able to penetrate closer to the underlying realities of nature than any scientist before him.

The material in the series was used as the foundation of a book by Barnett under the same title of “The Universe and Dr. Einstein” that was released in 1948 in New York and 1949 in London. The excerpt given above was also included in the book. Interestingly, the foreword was written by Albert Einstein who commended the work: 2

Lincoln Barnett’s book represents a valuable contribution to popular scientific writing. The main ideas of the theory of relativity are extremely well presented. Moreover, the present state of our knowledge in physics is aptly characterized.

Einstein’s remarks provided evidence that he had read the manuscript, and apparently he had not objected to the viewpoint about common sense that Barnett had ascribed to him.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1951 “Mathematics: Queen and Servant of Science” by E. T. Bell was published, and the author included a slightly different version of the saying attributed to Einstein. In this case, the expression was placed between quotation marks: 3

Some of this may jar common sense. If it does, I recall Einstein’s remark that “common sense is nothing more than a deposit of prejudices laid down in the mind before you reach eighteen.”

A compact instance of the saying was included in the important 2010 reference work “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein”; however, the editor had been unable to find any supporting citation: 4

Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.

In 2014 top quotation expert and BBC broadcaster Nigel Rees discussed the saying in his newsletter and pointed to its presence in the book by Lincoln Barnett. 5

In conclusion, a version of this expression was attributed to Albert Einstein by a journalist named Lincoln Barnett in1948, but Barnett did not use quotation marks. Hence, he may have been paraphrasing a viewpoint he thought was held by Einstein. In addition, Einstein wrote the forward to a book by Barnett containing the expression; hence, there is some evidence that the words accorded with Einstein’s beliefs.

Over time the expression has been shortened and placed between quotation marks to produce the common modern instances.

Image Notes: Portrait of Albert Einstein by E. O. Hoppe from LIFE magazine in 1921. Spacetime curvature image created by User Johnstone using a 3D CAD software package and an image of planet earth from NASA’s Galileo spacecraft. File obtained from Wikimedia Commons licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Images have been cropped.

(Great thanks to PatsFan whose query led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Also, thanks to the volunteer editors of Wikiquote.)

Notes:

  1. 1948 May, Harper’s Magazine, Volume 196, The Universe and Dr. Einstein: Part II by Lincoln Barnett, Start Page 465, Quote Page 473, Column 1, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York. (Verified on microfilm)
  2. 1949 (Copyright 1948), The Universe and Dr. Einstein by Lincoln Barnett (Lincoln Kinnear Barnett), (Foreword by Albert Einstein dated September 10, 1948), Quote Page 6 and 49, Published by Victor Gollancz Ltd., London. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1951, Mathematics: Queen and Servant of Science by E. T. Bell, Chapter 3: Breaking Bounds, Quote Page 42, McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York, (Verified with scans of 1951 U.S. edition)
  4. 2010, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, Edited by Alice Calaprice, Section: Probably Not By Einstein, Page 481, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. (Verified on paper)
  5. 2014 April, The “Quote…Unquote” Newsletter, Volume 23, Number 2, Section: Quoter’s Digest, Quote Page 11, Published & Edited by Nigel Rees. (PDF format newsletter obtained via email by QI)