Adage Origin: Three Stages of Acceptance: (1) It Is Not True. (2) It Is Contrary To Religion. (3) Everyone Knew It Before

Louis Agassiz? William Boyd Dawkins? Charles Lyell? Anonymous?

Question for Quote Investigator: Groundbreaking ideas face an intimidating multistage gauntlet of resistance. Several popular quotations elaborate on this notion. The prominent Swiss-American geologist and biologist Louis Agassiz apparently crafted a pungent and humorous saying that outlined three stages. Would you please examine that quotation?

Reply from Quote Investigator: Researchers have not yet found an expression of this type directly in the writings of Louis Agassiz who died in 1873. Nevertheless, he has often received credit for the thought. For example, the geologist and archaeologist William Boyd Dawkins presented a paper about hyena dens to the Somersetshire Archaeological and Natural History Society in England that appeared in the 1861-1862 proceedings.

At that time scientists were debating the age of the human race, and evidence suggested that humankind had resided on planet Earth much longer than six thousand years. Yet, some thinkers resisted the hypothesis of human antiquity. In the following passage Dawkins referred to a remark he ascribed to Agassiz. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:1

And this startling result of the combination of geology with archaeology, so unexpected, and so completely subversive of our pre-conceived notions, having met with, during the last fifty years, two out of the three inevitable objections which, according to Professor Agassiz, all new and startling facts in science must encounter, first, “that it is not true,” and secondly, “that it is contrary to religion,” has now happily arrived at the stage in which people say “everyone knew it before.”

In 1863 the famous geologist Sir Charles Lyell published “The Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man”. Lyell placed the statement he ascribed to Agassiz between quotation marks, but he did not give a citation:2

I may conclude this chapter by quoting a saying of Professor Agassiz, “that whenever a new and startling fact is brought to light in science, people first say, ‘it is not true,’ then that ‘it is contrary to religion,’ and lastly, ‘that everybody knew it before.'”

A separate QI article located here discusses the following related expression: “Three Stages of Discovery: First, They Deny It Is True; Second, They Deny It Is Important; Third, They Deny It Is New”.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In February 1863 a column in “The Hereford Times” of Herefordshire, England reprinted the quotation from Charles Lyell’s book with the simple introductory words “A Saying of Agassiz”.3 In March 1863 “The Daily News” of London reviewed Lyell’s book and also reprinted the quotation with an ascription to Agassiz.4

In November 1863 “The British Medical Journal” published an article from the Reading Pathological Society which included an instance of the saying that was phrased somewhat differently. Agassiz worked at a French-speaking university in Switzerland before he emigrated to the U.S, which may help to explain why the saying was ascribed to a “living Frenchman”:5

A living Frenchman has observed that, when any important discovery is made in science, people first cry out that it is not true; then they object that it is contrary to religion; and, finally, they declare that it is an old discovery, and that everybody knew it before. So, to a great extent, it was when the benign uses of chloroform were brought to light.

In 1867 a New York periodical called “The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art” referred to the expression as a “profound epigram” that “we all remember”:6

We all remember the profound epigram of Agassiz, that the world in dealing with a new truth passes through three stages: it first says that it is not true, then that it is contrary to religion, and finally, that we knew it before.

In 1868 a letter writer in “The Economist” of London credited a “distinguished naturalist” with a rephrased version that swapped the order of the first two elements:7

I must avow myself one of the most obstinate of the heretics in question, and can only console myself under the reproach with the saying of a distinguished naturalist—that every truth passes through three stages, in the first of which it is charged with heresy, in the second it is pronounced not to be true, and in the last it is declared to contain nothing new.

In 1870 the minister and literary figure Edward Everett Hale published a book under the pseudonym “Col. Frederic Ingham”. Hale credited Agassiz with a scrambled version of the saying:8

Mr. Agassiz says that every great scientific truth goes through three stages. First, people say it conflicts with the Bible. Next, they say it had been discovered before. Lastly, they say they always believed it.

In 1891 the adage appeared in “A Dictionary of Thoughts: Being a Cyclopedia of Laconic Quotations from the Best Authors, Both Ancient and Modern” by Tryon Edwards. This long-lived reference work was repeatedly revised, re-titled, and re-issued. The book entry presented a scrambled instance ascribed to Agassiz:9

Every great scientific truth goes through three stages.—First, people say it conflicts with the Bible.—Next they say it had been discovered before.—Lastly, they say they always believed it.—Agassiz.

In 1967 “Reader’s Digest” printed the adage in a section called “Points to Ponder”. The instance was very similar to the expression in the 1891 citation above, and Agassiz received credit.10

In 2012 a blog post on the website “Patheos: Hosting the Conversation on Faith” ascribed the saying to the well-known astrophysicist and science communicator Neil Degrasse Tyson:11

“Every great scientific truth goes through three phases. First, people deny it. Second, they say it conflicts with the Bible. Third, they say they’ve known it all along.” —Neil Degrasse Tyson

In conclusion, Louis Agassiz may be credited with the quotation specified by Charles Lyell in 1863. The evidence was indirect, and it remains unclear where and when Lyell learned about the remark. The adage achieved wide distribution, and QI has found no evidence that Agassiz ever attempted to disclaim the ascription during the decade he lived after 1863.

Acknowledgement: Great thanks to Wall Street Journal reporter Jason Zweig who inquired about quotations that outlined multiple stages in the acceptance of a new idea. This is the first of several entries that QI hopes to create on this topic. Zweig identified a pertinent quotation by J. B. S. Haldane that QI will discuss in the future.

Update History: On March 19, 2024 the format of the bibliographical notes was updated.

  1. 1863, Somersetshire Archaeological and Natural History Society, Proceedings During the Years 1861-2, Volume 11, Part II, Papers, Etc., Wookey Hole Hyena Den by W. Boyd Dawkins, Start Page 197, Quote Page 198, Published by Frederick May, Taunton, England and Bell & Daldy, London, England. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  2. 1863, The Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man: With Remarks on Theories of the Origin of Species by Variation by Sir Charles Lyell, Chapter 6, Quote Page 105, George W. Childs, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  3. 1863 February 14, The Hereford Times, Literature, Science, and Art, Quote Page 14, Column 1, Herefordshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive) ↩︎
  4. 1863 March 12, The Daily News (London Daily News), Literature (Book Review of “The Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man” by Sir Charles Lyell), Quote Page 3, Column 1, London, Middlesex. (NewspaperArchive) ↩︎
  5. 1863 November 21, The British Medical Journal, Transactions of Branches: Reading Branch, Report of the Reading Pathological Society by H. Colley March (Read July 1, 1863), Case related by Mr. Walford, Start Page 546, Quote Page 548, Column 2, Published by British Medical Association, London, (HathiTrust Full View) ↩︎
  6. 1867 October, The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art, Volume 6, The Prophet of Culture by Henry Sidgwick (Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge), Acknowledgement to Macmillan’s Magazine, Start Page 490, Quote Page 498, Column 1, W. H. Bidwell, Editor and Proprietor, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  7. 1868 May 2, The Economist, Section: Letters to the Editor, Letter Title: Emigration, Wages, and Land, From: T. E. Cliffe Leslie, Date: May 1, 1868, Start Page 497, Quote Page 498, Published at the Economist Office, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩︎
  8. 1870 June, Old and New, Volume 1, Number 6, Ten Times One Is Ten: A Story in Eight Chapters by Col. Frederic Ingham, Chapter 8 and Last, Start Page 779, Quote Page 780, Column 1, H. O. Houghton and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  9. 1891, A Dictionary of Thoughts: Being a Cyclopedia of Laconic Quotations from the Best Authors, Both Ancient and Modern by Tryon Edwards, Section: Science, Quote Page 506, Column 2, Cassell Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  10. 1967 June, Reader’s Digest, Points to Ponder, Quote Page 36B, Column 2, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on microfilm) ↩︎
  11. Website: Patheos: Hosting the Conversation on Faith, Article title: Neil Degrasse Tyson: The 3 Phases of Scientific Truth, Article author: Daniel Florien, Date on website: August 8, 2012, Website description: “online destination to engage in the global dialogue about religion and spirituality”. (Accessed on October 3, 2016) link ↩︎
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