That Which Can Be Destroyed By the Truth Should Be

Carl Sagan? P. C. Hodgell? Kirien? Anonymous?

sagan07Dear Quote Investigator: There exists a family of sayings that is popular in the community of skeptics. Here are four examples:

1) That which can be destroyed by the truth should be.
2) Anything that can be destroyed by the truth should be.
3) Anything that can be destroyed by the truth, most certainly should be.
4) If it can be destroyed by the truth, it deserves to be destroyed by the truth.

This expression has been attributed to the astronomer and science communicator Carl Sagan, but it has also been credited to the award-winning fantasy author P. C. Hodgell. Would you please help to dispel the confusion?

Quote Investigator: QI has located no substantive evidence that Carl Sagan said or wrote this expression. He died in 1996, and an instance was attributed to him many years later in 2012.

The earliest strong match known to QI appeared in the 1994 novel “Seeker’s Mask” by P. C. Hodgell (Patricia C. Hodgell). In the following scene two characters named Jame and Kirien were conversing, and the adage was spoken by Kirien. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Jame winced, remembering the awful revelation of her own soul-image. “Perhaps,” she said, “we can’t endure to know ourselves too well. Perhaps, the truth can sometimes destroy.”

“That which can be destroyed by the truth should be,” said that implacable voice. Could any Arrin-ken have spoken with more authority? “Of what would you choose to remain in ignorance?”

It is important to recognize that a quotation from a novel sometimes represents the opinion of a character and not the belief of an author. Indeed, the fictional person expressing the thought may grow and change dramatically during a story arc; hence, even that person may disown the quotation.

The fantasy backdrop in the novel was complex. The prefatory section of the work provided the following one-line descriptions for the dialog participants:

Kirien — the Jaran Lordan or Heir, a scrollswoman
Jame — Jamethiel Priest’s-Bane, Torisen’s twin sister

Hodgell does not recall hearing the adage before she penned it for “Seeker’s Mask”. She kindly provided QI with the following gloss for the scene: 2

Jame is speaking to Kirien, a young scholar (she of the “implacable voice”). Anxiety has pulled the latter into the academic equivalent of a berserker fit — a ruthless drive to lay bare the truth, regardless of the cost. She is about to force Jame to face some facts about herself at the worst possible time, in the middle of a crisis.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In June 1997 an instance of the saying appeared in the signature block of a message posted to the Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.sf.written by a person named David Goldfarb. Hodgell and her novel were credited, but the phrasing was slightly different: 3

“Anything that can be destroyed by the truth should be.”
— P. C. Hodgell, _Seeker’s Mask_

The text above appeared in many messages from Goldfarb because he used the same signature block repeatedly.

In March 1998 a participant in rec.arts.sf.written named Damien R. Sullivan included a correctly worded version of the adage in a message. The ascription properly named the author, book, and character: 4

“That which can be destroyed by the truth should be.”
— P.C. Hodgell, _Seeker’s Mask_, Kirien

In 2004 a message in the rec.arts.sf.written newsgroup posed a question about the realism of discourse within works of fantasy and science fiction:

What SF contains phrases or idioms which feel plausible *in the world of the story*? What rings true as a phrase that those people would keep handy in their vocabulary?

Damien R. Sullivan responded by presenting two sayings from Hodgell’s fantasy universe: 5

“Death break me, darkness take me.” — Jame Talissen
I’ll renominate “That which can be destroyed by the truth should be.” Though we don’t know these are phrases.

Of course, any fantasy world with its own gods can swear by them; it’s a cheap way of making phrases. Swearing in general is cheap; at least the Hodgell ones I picked go beyond that.

The saying continued to circulate in August 2008 when a version without ascription was tweeted by @ektimo: 6

anything that can be destroyed by the truth should be

Also by 2008 the saying was employed as an epigraph in an essay by Eliezer S. Yudkowsky who is a researcher exploring the dangers and opportunities of artificial intelligence. QI was not certain when the essay was written, but a snapshot in the Wayback Machine database displayed the adage with an ascription to Hodgell in October 2008: 7

“That which can be destroyed by the truth should be.”
— P.C. Hodgell

In November 2008 a tweeter with the handle Isaac Z. Schlueter shared the quotation via a tweet that precisely matched the epigraph used by Yudkowsky; however, by December 2008 Schlueter was expressing uncertainty about the origin of the adage with the following tweet: 8 9

Anyone have a source for that “destroyed by truth” P.C.Hodgell quote *other* that Eliezer Yudkowsky’s website

In 2010 a twitter user shared a slightly rephrased instance and pointed to Yudkowsky’s web essay: 10

@ChrisCrocker What can be destroyed by the truth, should be. Check it: http://yudkowsky.net/rational/virtues

In January 2011 another rephrased instance was tweeted without attribution: 11

Anything that can be destroyed by the truth, most certainly should be!

In February 2012 a twitter user mentioned Carl Sagan and linked to a documentary. The tweet also included an instance of the adage: 12

Carl Sagan is also in this very cogent and truthful documentary: http://watchdocumentary.com/watch… If it can be destroyed by truth it should be.

Some readers of the tweet above may have believed that Sagan spoke the quotation during the documentary, but he did not. The tweet fits the pattern of a known mechanism for the generation of misattributions. The name of a famous person appears near a quotation, and one or more readers assume that the words should be ascribed to that person.

The video was more than two and one half hours long. At 2:29 an excerpt from “Pale Blue Dot” was shown with narration by Sagan. The words on the soundtrack during the excerpt were unrelated to the quotation under investigation. Perhaps the tweeter did not mean to link the quotation to Sagan. Instead, the tweeter was suggesting that overall content of the documentary had the destructive power envisaged by the quotation.

In December 2012 a tweet unambiguously credited Sagan with an instance of the saying: 13

“If it can be destroyed by the truth, it deserves to be destroyed by the truth”
– Carl Sagan

In February 2016 a researcher working at the Snopes website examined the saying and concluded that it had been misattributed to Sagan. 14

In conclusion, QI believes that P. C. Hodgell should be credited with the adage she wrote in 1994. QI also believes that the linkage of the saying to Carl Sagan was spurious. The exact error mechanism was uncertain, but the tweet in February 2012 may have facilitated the incorrect reassignment of the saying.

Image Notes: Picture of Carl Sagan cropped from a larger image showing the founders of The Planetary Society. Public domain image created by NASA accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Reduced-size low-resolution images from the book “Seeker’s Mask” for purposes of identification.

(Great thanks to Sarah Kishler whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Kishler contacted QI back in August 2013, and at that time shared with QI the citation in “Seeker’s Mask” which she acquired by conversing with Hodgell. Special thanks to author P. C. Hodgell for her helpful responses to QI’s questions. Thanks also to Kam-Yung Soh who pointed to the Snopes entry on this topic.)

Notes:

  1. 1994, Seeker’s Mask by P. C. Hodgell, Part VIII: Section 1, Quote Page 406, Published by Hypatia Press, Eugene, Oregon; distributed by Blue Moon Books, Woodinville, Washington. (Verified on paper)
  2. Personal Communication via email between Garson O’Toole and P. C. Hodgell, Time period: March 8 and 9, 2016.
  3. 1997 June 1, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: rec.arts.sf.written, From: David Goldfarb @ocf.berkeley.edu, Subject: Re: deep thoughts: Tamagotchi and Kornbluth. (Google Groups Search; Accessed March 13, 2016) link
  4. 1998 March 8, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: rec.arts.sf.written, From: Damien R. Sullivan @ugcs.caltech.edu, Subject: Re: Fantasy Economies That Work [was: Pernese drudges]. (Google Groups Search; Accessed March 13, 2016) link
  5. 2004 January 23, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: rec.arts.sf.written, From: Damien R. Sullivan @cs.indiana.edu, Subject: Re: Coining phrases, (Google Groups Search; Accessed March 13, 2016) link
  6. Tweet, From: Ed @ektimo, Time: 9:57 PM, Date: August 23, 2008, Text: anything that can be destroyed . . ., (Accessed on twitter.com on March 13, 2016) link
  7. Website: yudkowsky.net Eliezer S. Yudkowsky, Essay: Twelve Virtues of Rationality, Author: Eliezer S. Yudkowsky, Affiliation: Research Fellow – Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, (Quotation appeared as an epigraph of the essay), Wayback Machine Snapshot Date: October 21, 2008. (Website web.archive.org accessed on March 13, 2016) link link
  8. Tweet, From: Isaac Z. Schlueter @izs, Time: 5:27 AM, Date: November 16, 2008, Text: That which can be destroyed . . ., (Accessed on twitter.com on March 13, 2016) link
  9. Tweet, From: Isaac Z. Schlueter @izs, Time: 10:44 PM, Date: December 10, 2008, Text: Anyone have a source for that . . ., (Accessed on twitter.com on March 13, 2016) link
  10. Tweet, From: Space Zinnia @ZJemptv, Time: 5:56 PM, Date: October 21, 2010, Text: @ChrisCrocker What can be destroyed by the truth . . ., (Accessed on twitter.com on March 13, 2016) link
  11. Tweet, From: Frank Stratton @frankstratton, Time: 11:15 AM, Date: January 9, 2011, Text: Anything that can be destroyed . . ., (Accessed on twitter.com on March 13, 2016) link
  12. Tweet, From: subversive @MindDetonat0r, Time: 8:29 PM, Date: February 22 2012, Text: Carl Sagan is also in this very cogent . . ., (Accessed on twitter.com on March 13, 2016) link
  13. Tweet, From: Travis Smith @nep, Time: 2:29 PM, Date: 2012 December 28 Text: If it can be destroyed . . ., (Accessed on twitter.com on March 13, 2016) link
  14. Website; Snopes, Article title: Sagan It Like It Is, Article Subtitle: The quote, “If it can be destroyed by the truth, it deserves to be destroyed by the truth,” is widely misattributed to Carl Sagan, Author: Kim LaCapria, Date on website: February 23, 2016, Website description: Research on rumors and urban legends. (Accessed snopes.com on March 13, 2016) link