Beware of His False Knowledge: It Is More Dangerous Than Ignorance

George Bernard Shaw? Alexander Pope? H. W. James? Thomas Henry Huxley? Paul Janet? George Pellew? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Recently I saw a tweet with a quotation attributed to the famous playwright and intellectual George Bernard Shaw:

Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance.

I haven’t been able to find a solid citation. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: In 1903 George Bernard Shaw published “Man and Superman: A Comedy and a Philosophy”. The book included a section titled “Maxims for Revolutionists”. One of the adages closely matched the statement under analysis. Yet, it did differ slightly. Here are four of Shaw’s maxims. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.

A learned man is an idler who kills time with study. Beware of his false knowledge: it is more dangerous than ignorance.

Activity is the only road to knowledge.

Every fool believes what his teachers tell him, and calls his credulity science or morality as confidently as his father called it divine revelation.

Shaw’s comment about false knowledge has close precursors, and QI suggests a possible lineage for the remark by presenting selected citations in chronological order below.

In 1711 the prominent poet Alexander Pope published “An Essay on Criticism” containing the following four famous lines: 2

A little learning is a dang’rous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

Pope was warning about shallow or incomplete learning and not false knowledge. In addition, he did not use the term ignorance. However, over time a variety of related statements have emerged.

For example, in 1833 H. W. James published a book of French and English aphorisms with the title “Vérités Amusantes et Intéressantes: Amusing and Interesting Truths”. One adage cautioned about “superficial knowledge” and contained the phrase “more dangerous than ignorance” which occurred in the target expression: 3

Un demi-savoir est plus dangereux que l’ignorance.

A superficial knowledge is more dangerous than ignorance.

In 1839 a piece in “The American Jurist and Law Magazine” used the following sentence to introduce two observations. 4

But I shall follow them with two observations, which I consider essential to prevent the abuse resulting from false or incomplete knowledge, which is always more dangerous than ignorance.

In 1858 a collection of pieces from “Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine” 5 was published under the title “The Familiar Epistles of Mr. John Company to Mr. John Bull”. The two phrases “more dangerous than Ignorance” and “a little learning” occurred in one statement. The second phrase was placed between quotation marks and clearly harkened back to Pope: 6

There is, however, something still worse—something still more dangerous than Ignorance, and that is “a little learning.”

In 1877 the influential English biologist Thomas Henry Huxley published an article about physiology in the scientific journal “Nature”. Huxley included an interesting reaction to a catchphrase that had been inspired by Pope’s lines. The catchphrase employed “knowledge” instead of “learning”: 7

The saying that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing is, to my mind, a very dangerous adage. If knowledge is real and genuine, I do not believe that it is other than a very valuable possession, however infinitesimal its quantity may be. Indeed, if a little knowledge is dangerous, where is the man who has so much as to be out of danger?

In 1887 a book by the French philosopher Paul Janet was translated into English and published as “Elements of Morals”. Janet shared an adage with an anonymous attribution: 8

It has been justly said that little knowledge may be more dangerous than ignorance: for this reason should men be raised above the dangerous point, and be put in possession of as much knowledge as their condition warrants.

In 1888 an article by George Pellew in the magazine “Education” contained a close match to the statement published by Shaw more than a decade later: 9

False knowledge is even more dangerous than ignorance.

In 1903 Shaw published “Man and Superman” with “Maxims for Revolutionists” which included the following: 10

A learned man is an idler who kills time with study. Beware of his false knowledge: it is more dangerous than ignorance.

In 1949 “The Home Book of Quotations: Classical and Modern” compiled by Burton Stevenson contained an entry for Shaw’s quotation with an attribution to “Maxims for Revolutionists”. 11

In 1977 “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” compiled by Laurence J. Peter included a slightly modified version of Shaw’s words that exactly matched the statement under examination: 12

Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance.
—George Bernard Shaw

In conclusion, George Bernard Shaw did write the statement in the 1903 citation. However, a close match to the second sentence appeared in the 1888 citation above. Also, precursors occurred even earlier. Thus, the saying evolved over time, and Shaw’s remark was not wholly original.

Image Notes: Picture of a book and glasses from Dariusz Sankowskiat PixaBay. Image has been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Jim O’Shaughnessy whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1905 (1903 Copyright), Man and Superman: A Comedy and a Philosophy by Bernard Shaw (George Bernard Shaw), Section: Maxims for Revolutionists, Start Page 226, Quote Page 230, Brentano’s, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1718 (First published in 1711), The Works of Mr. Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism, Note in text: Written by Mr. Pope in the Year 1709, Quote Page 9 and 10, Printed for T. J. for B.L. & other Booksellers, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1833, Vérités Amusantes et Intéressantes: Amusing and Interesting Truths: Upwards of a Thousand Apothegms, Aphorisms, Opinions, Sentiments, Ideas, Thoughts, Sayings, &c. by H. W. James (Teacher of the French and Latin Languages), Quote Page 92, Simpkin and Marshall, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1839 April, The American Jurist and Law Magazine, Volume 21, Civil and Criminal Laws of Modern States by L. S. C., Start Page 56, Quote Page 69, Charles C. Little and James Brown, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1858 February, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, Volume 83, A Familiar Epistle of Mr. John Company to Mr. John Bull, Start Page 245, Quote Page 252, Column 2, William Blackwood & Sons, Edinburgh, Scotland. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1858, The Familiar Epistles of Mr. John Company to Mr. John Bull. (Reprinted, with Additions, from Blackwood’s Magazine), Quote Page 20, William Blackwood & Sons, Edinburgh, Scotland. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1877 July 19, Nature: A Weekly Illustrated Journal of Science, Volume 16, On Elementary Instruction in Physiology by T. H. Huxley (Thomas Henry Huxley), Start Page 233, Quote Page 234, Macmillan and Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1887, Elements of Morals: With Special Application of the Moral Law to the Duties of the Individual and of Society and the State by Paul Janet, Translated from French by Mrs. C. R. Corson, Chapter 10: Family Duties, Quote Page 209 and 210, American Book Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  9. 1888 April, Education: A Monthly Magazine, Volume 8, A Neglected Duty of the Women of Massachusetts by George Pellew, Start Page 500, Quote Page 502, Eastern Educational Bureau, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  10. 1905 (1903 Copyright), Man and Superman: A Comedy and a Philosophy by Bernard Shaw (George Bernard Shaw), Section: Maxims for Revolutionists, Start Page 226, Quote Page 230, Brentano’s, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  11. 1949, The Home Book of Quotations: Classical and Modern, Selected by Burton Stevenson, Sixth Edition, Topic: Learning, Quote Page 1098, Column 1, Dodd, Mead and Company, New York. (Internet Archive at archive.org)
  12. 1977, “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time”, Compiled by Laurence J. Peter, Topic: Knowledge, Quote Page 282, William Morrow and Company, New York. (Verified on paper)