Research Is the Process of Going Up Alleys to See If They’re Blind

Marston Bates? Barstow Bates? Plutarch? Anonymous?

maze10Dear Quote Investigator: A path-breaking researcher must pursue many leads that do not work out. Sometimes he or she must exhaustively test a set of possibilities with the foreknowledge that only a handful will yield positive results. That is why I embrace the following insightful saying:

Research is the process of going up alleys to see if they’re blind.

This statement is usually attributed to the prominent zoologist Marston Bates, but I have been unable to find a solid citation. Would you please trace this saying?

Quote Investigator: QI believes that the ascription to Marston Bates was a mistake. The expression was actually coined by a business consultant named Barstow Bates, and the two similar names caused confusion and error.

The earliest evidence located by QI was published in “Business Management” magazine in October 1967. The article “How to Generate Ideas for New Products” stated that some novel ideas would be rejected by management. This judgement should be accepted, and the search for better ideas should continue. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Don’t worry over the cost of being told “Forget it.” That decision is probably going to save you more than it cost. “Research,” says Barstow Bates, president, New Product Services, Inc., “is the process of going up alleys to see if they’re blind.”

The magazine editor felt that the saying was noteworthy, and it was displayed as a pull-quote. The expression also attracted the attention of the staff of “Quote Magazine”, a publication that specialized in collecting and reprinting interesting contemporary quotations. The words of Barstow Bates appeared in the November 1967 issue: 2

Research is the process of going up alleys to see if they’re blind. — BARSTOW BATES quoted in “How to Generate New Ideas for New Products,” Business Management.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Eleven days after the saying appeared in “Quote Magazine” an instance was printed in an advertisement together with miscellaneous quotations in the “Sumner Gazette” of Sumner, Iowa. No attribution was given and the phrasing was slightly altered: 3

Research is the process of going up alleys to see if they are really blind or not.

In 1980 the saying was included in a compilation titled “The Quotable Quotations Book”. The entry pointed precisely to the proper issue of “Quote Magazine”, and the quotation was correct. Unfortunately, the ascription was to Marston Bates instead of Barstow Bates. This book might be fount of the error that has propagated to modern times: 4

Research is the process of going up alleys to see if they’re blind.
MARSTON BATES, Quote, Nov. 5, 1967

In 1986 the adage appeared in “The Fitzhenry & Whiteside Book of Quotations”, and in 1987 it was included in the successor reference work “Barnes & Noble Book of Quotations”. Marston Bates was credited in both: 5 6

Research is the process of going up alleys to see if they are blind.
Marston Bates

In 1988 the quotation and attribution given above were repeated in a short article titled “Replays” in the “Chicago Tribune”. 7

Also in 1988 a columnist writing about genealogy reprinted material from another columnist that included the quotation without attribution: 8

The rest of today’s humor is quoted from “The Sunny Side of Genealogy,” by Fonda D. Basalt
Research is the process of going up alleys to see if they’re blind.
• To forget one’s ancestors is to be a brook without a source, a tree without a root.

In the twenty-first century the saying has implausibly been attributed to the ancient Greek historian Plutarch. For example, in 2008 a book about physical therapy used the following as a chapter epigraph: 9

Research is the act of going up alleys to see if they are blind.
Plutarch

In conclusion, Barstow Bates should be credited with the saying he spoke in October 1967. The ascription to Marston Bates was a mistake. The two names were similar, and Marston Bates was a more prominent figure from the science realm.

Image Notes: Maze from Public Domain Vectors.

(Great thanks to Andrew Cohen whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks to a wonderful librarian at the Beaman Library of Lipscomb University who was given the name Marston Bates to find in the index of an issue of “Quote Magazine”. She determined that the correct name linked to the quotation was Barstow Bates. Thanks to a helpful and alacritous librarian in St. Augustine, Florida. Also thanks to librarians at Florida Atlantic University and the University of Central Florida.)

Notes:

  1. 1967 October, Business Management, Volume 33, Number 1, Article: How to Generate Ideas for New Products, Start Page 82, Quote Page 91, Management Magazines, Greenwich, Connecticut. (Verified with scans; thanks to the Library system of Florida Atlantic University)
  2. 1967 November 5, Quote Magazine, Topic: Research, Quote Page 373, Column 1, Droke House Inc., Anderson, South Carolina. (Verified with scans; thanks to Beaman Library, Lipscomb University, Nashville, Tennessee)
  3. 1967 November 16, Sumner Gazette, Advertisement: Hee Haw News from 4 Square Lumber, Quote Page 2, Column 7, Sumner, Iowa. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1980, The Quotable Quotations Book, Compiled by Alec Lewis, Section: Research, Quote Page 227, Thomas Y. Crowell, New York. (Verified on paper)
  5. 1986, The Fitzhenry & Whiteside Book of Quotations: Revised and Enlarged, Edited by Robert I. Fitzhenry, Section: Science and Technology, Quote Page 317, Fitzhenry & Whiteside Limited, Toronto. (Verified on paper)
  6. 1987, Barnes & Noble Book of Quotations: Revised and Enlarged, Edited by Robert I. Fitzhenry, Section: Science and Technology, Page 317, Barnes & Noble Books, Division of Harper & Row, New York. (Verified on paper)
  7. 1988 March 6, Chicago Tribune, Section: The Chicago Tribune Magazine, Replays, Quote Page I6, Column 1, Chicago, Illinois, (ProQuest)
  8. 1988 August 4, Spokane Chronicle, What if descendants’ surname sprang from your occupation? by Donna Phillips, Quote Page V15, Column 1, (Google Newspaper Archive)
  9. 2008, Guide to Evidence-Based Physical Therapy Practice by Dianne V. Jewell, (Chapter 5 epigraph), Quote Page 97, Published by Jones and Bartlett Publishers, Sudbury, Massachusetts. (Google Books Preview)