It’s Not What You See That Is Suspect, But How You Interpret What You See

Isaac Asimov? John A. Keel? Apocryphal?

asimov10Dear Quote Investigator: Recently, I read a book called “The Mothman Prophecies” which discussed mysterious sightings of a human-sized moth-like creature in West Virginia in the 1960s. There are many ways to attempt to interpret bizarre and enigmatic visions. The book included an intriguing quotation attributed to the well-known science and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov:

It’s not what you see that is suspect, but how you interpret what you see.

Did Asimov really say this? Would you please trace this quotation?

Quote Investigator: In 1966 Isaac Asimov published an article titled “UFO’s—What I Think” in “Science Digest” magazine. He stated that UFOs (Unidentified Flying Objects) certainly did exist. But he noted that a creaking sound heard late at night in your house might be labeled a UHO (Unidentified Heard Object), and an entity on the ground seen briefly in the corner of your eye might be called a UCO (Unidentified Creeping Object). These object types probably did not require a supernatural or interstellar explanation.

Asimov suggested that UFOs probably were not the spaceships of extraterrestrial beings. The following excerpt included the quotation: 1

I am told, though, that so many people have seen objects that looked like spaceships that “there must be something to it.” Maybe there is, but think of all the people in the history of the world who have seen ghosts and spirits and angels.

It’s not what you see that is suspect, but how you interpret what you see. After all, you can see with your own eyes that the Earth is flat and that the Sun goes around the Earth; you see that even though you have been taught that what you see is consistent with the interpretation that the Earth is a sphere and goes around the Sun.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1975 “The Mothman Prophecies” by John A. Keel was released, and it included an excerpt from Asimov’s “Science Digest” article that was largely accurate. The phrase “must be something to it” was changed to “must be something in it”. Also, the ellipsis in the following passage was not needed: 2

Dr. Isaac Asimov, dean of science writers, commented: “I am told, though, that so many people have seen objects that looked like spaceships that ‘there must be something in it’. … Maybe there is, but think of all the people in the history of the world who have seen ghosts and spirits and angels. It’s not what you see that is suspect, but how you interpret what you see.”

In 1987 “The New York Times” published a short profile of the experimental psychologist Jerome Bruner, and he presented a thematically related comment about the intertwining of observation and speculation in the domain of physics: 3

I was a visiting scholar at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies about that time, and found physicists deeply interested in the same question. As one put it, physics was 5 percent observation and 95 percent speculation. They saw that the models you build determine what you look for, how you interpret what you see, and what you do not see.

In conclusion, Isaac Asimov did write the quotation and published it in “Science Digest” in 1966. John A. Keel appropriately credited Asimov.

Image Notes: UFO image from MasterTux at Pixabay. Portrait of Isaac Asimov from the New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection of the Library of Congress; accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

(Great thanks to Ari Drew whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Wombats Marci Frederick, Catherine Wilterding, Linda Corets, and Todd Mason. Many thanks for the efforts of John Van Hook. In addition, thanks to a helpful librarian at the Swisher Library of Jacksonville University.)

Notes:

  1. 1966 June, Science Digest: The Science News Monthly, Volume 59, Number 6, UFO’s–What I Think by Isaac Asimov, Start Page 44, Quote Page 46, Column 2, Published by The Hearst Corporation, New York. (Verified with scans; special thanks to the Sadie Hartzler Library of Eastern Mennonite University; the Dick Smith Library of Tarleton State University)
  2. 2002 (Copyright 1975, 1991), The Mothman Prophecies by John A. Keel, Chapter 4: Take the Train, Quote Page 39, Published by Tor, New York. (Verified with scans of 2002 edition)
  3. 1987 October 20, New York Times, Leading Psychologist Expands the Boundaries by Daniel Goleman, Start Page C1, Quote Page C13, New York. (ProQuest)