“Is Your New Baby a Boy Or a Girl?” “Yes”

Bertrand Russell? Leo Rosten? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The prominent British philosopher and essayist Bertrand Russell co-wrote an important book of classical logic titled “Principia Mathematica”. An anecdote about Russell is based on a humorously rigorous logical interpretation of a question. A colleague spoke to Russell shortly after his wife had a baby:

“Congratulations. Is it a girl or a boy?”

Do you think this story is genuine or apocryphal?

Quote Investigator: QI believes that this anecdote is apocryphal; however, it was probably derived from a passage that appeared in Bertrand Russell’s 1940 book “An Inquiry Into Meaning And Truth” which discussed the interpretation of logical disjunction. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

The following conversation might occur between a medical logician and his wife. “Has Mrs. So-and-So had her child?” “Yes.” “Is it a boy or a girl?” “Yes.” The last answer, though logically impeccable, would be infuriating.

The answerer would normally understand that the questioner wished to know the sex of the child. Instead, the answerer unhelpfully indicated that the sex of the child fell within the set {male, female}. Nowadays, there is greater awareness of intersex children, so the interpretation of this scenario would be more complex.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading “Is Your New Baby a Boy Or a Girl?” “Yes”


  1. 1940 (1956 Fifth Impression), An Inquiry Into Meaning And Truth by Bertrand Russell, The William James Lectures for 1940 Delivered at Harvard University, Chapter 5: Logical Words, Quote Page 85 and 86, George Allen and Unwin Ltd, London. (Verified with scans)

The Difficulty Is To Persuade the Human Race To Acquiesce in Its Own Survival

Bertrand Russell? George Orwell? Arthur Koestler? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Humanity faces many existential dangers: hydrogen bombs, bioweapons, asteroid impacts, nanoplagues, and artificial intelligence. Yet, most of these dangers were created by humankind, and all can be ameliorated by wise decisions. The British philosopher Bertrand Russell once said something like:

The question is how to persuade humanity to consent in its own survival.

Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: The first atomic bombs were detonated in 1945. Scientists involved in the creation of these astonishingly powerful weapons began to publish “The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists” that same year. Bertrand Russell wrote a piece titled “The Atomic Bomb and the Prevention of War” for the periodical in October 1946 which discussed the momentous challenges emerging from the new scientific and technological advances. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

If any of the things that we value are to survive, the problem must be solved. How it can be solved is clear; the difficulty is to persuade the human race to acquiesce in its own survival. I cannot believe that this task is impossible.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Difficulty Is To Persuade the Human Race To Acquiesce in Its Own Survival


  1. 1946 October 1, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Volume 2, Numbers 7 and 8, The Atomic Bomb and the Prevention of War by Bertrand Russell, Start Page 19, Quote Page 21, Column 3, Published by The Atomic Scientists of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books full view) link

This World Is the Lunatic Asylum of the Universe

Mark Twain? Thomas Jefferson? Voltaire? Edward Young? George Bernard Shaw? Laird MacKenzie? Elsie McCormick? Bertrand Russell? Kurt Vonnegut? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Several thinkers have offered an anguished explanation for the dangerously disordered state of the world. Here are four versions:

  • This world is the lunatic asylum for other planets.
  • Earth is a madhouse for the Universe
  • The other planets use Earth as an insane asylum.
  • Our world is bedlam for other worlds.

This notion has been credited to Mark Twain, Voltaire, Thomas Jefferson, George Bernard Shaw and others. Would you please explore the provenance of this expression?

Quote Investigator: This is a complex topic; hence, QI will split the response into three articles; an article centered on Voltaire’s quotation is available here; an article centered on George Bernard Shaw’s quotation is available here; an overview article is presented below.

A thematic match occurred in a lengthy work by the English poet Edward Young. The poem was called “The Complaint, Or, Night-thoughts on Life, Death, & Immortality”, and it was split into a sequence of numbered “Nights”. The expression appeared in “Night Nine” which was serialized in “The Scots Magazine” in 1747. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

But what are we? You never heard of Man,
Or Earth; the Bedlam of the universe!
Where Reason, undiseas’d with you, runs mad,
And nurses Folly’s children as her own;

Voltaire wrote a story “Memnon ou La Sagesse Humaine” (“Memnon or Human Wisdom”) in the late 1740s and published it by 1749. The main character Memnon mentions Earth’s place in the universe. Here is an English translation from 1807: 2

“I am afraid,” said Memnon, “that our little terraqueous globe here is the mad-house of those hundred thousand millions of worlds, of which your Lordship does me the honour to speak.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading This World Is the Lunatic Asylum of the Universe


  1. 1747 May, The Scots Magazine, Volume 9, Section: Poetical Essays, The Complaint, Night 9 and Last: The Consolation, (by Edward Young), Continuation of Complaint, Night 9, Start Page 221, Quote Page 225, Printed by W. Sands, A. Murray, and J. Cochran, Edinburgh, Scotland. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  2. 1807, Classic Tales: Serious and Lively, Volume 2, Voltaire, Story: Memnon the Philosopher; or Human Wisdom, Start Page 181, Quote Page 188 and 189, Printed and Published by and for John Hunt & Carew Reynell, London. (Google Books Full View) link

Most People Would Die Sooner Than Think—In Fact, They Do So

Bertrand Russell? Sheldon? John Ruskin? Woods Hutchinson? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Cantankerous individuals who believe they are surrounded by an ignorant and unthinking public sometimes proclaim:

  • People would rather die than think.

This statement has been enhanced with a funny addition that reinvigorates the cliché. Here are two versions:

  • Many people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do.
  • Most people would rather die than think, and many of them do.

The influential British intellectual Bertrand Russell has received credit for this saying. Would you please trace this saying?

Quote Investigator: Bertrand Russell did include an instance in his 1925 book about physics titled “The ABC of Relativity”. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

We all have a tendency to think that the world must conform to our prejudices. The opposite view involves some effort of thought, and most people would die sooner than think—in fact, they do so. But the fact that a spherical universe seems odd to people who have been brought up on Euclidean prejudices is no evidence that it is impossible.

Confusion has occurred because Russell’s book has been reprinted and revised several times over the years. The humorous statement above was omitted from the revised 1958 edition and subsequent editions.

Interestingly, Bertrand Russell did not create this joke. An elaborate version was in circulation by 1913. Below are additional selected citations and further details in chronological order.

Continue reading Most People Would Die Sooner Than Think—In Fact, They Do So


  1. 1925, The ABC of Relativity by Bertrand Russell, Chapter XI: Is the Universe Finite?, Quote Page 166, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified with scans)

Language Serves Not Only to Express Thoughts, but to Make Possible Thoughts Which Could Not Exist Without It

Bertrand Russell? Neil Postman? Apocryphal?

language09Dear Quote Investigator: The relationship between language and thought is complex. The famous philosopher Bertrand Russell held the provocative belief that some thoughts could not exist without language. I believe I read this assertion in a book Russell wrote, but I have not been able to relocate the apposite passage. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: In 1948 Bertrand Russell published “Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits” which included such a claim. Emphasis added by QI: 1

Language serves not only to express thoughts, but to make possible thoughts which could not exist without it. It is sometimes maintained that there can be no thought without language, but to this view I cannot assent: I hold that there can be thought, and even true and false belief, without language. But however that may be, it cannot be denied that all fairly elaborate thoughts require words.

Russell illustrated his point with examples of mathematically infused knowledge:

I can know, in a sense, that I have five fingers, without knowing the word “five”, but I cannot know that the population of London is about eight millions unless I have acquired the language of arithmetic, nor can I have any thought at all closely corresponding to what is asserted in the sentence: “The ratio of the circumference of a circle to the diameter is approximately 3.14159.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Language Serves Not Only to Express Thoughts, but to Make Possible Thoughts Which Could Not Exist Without It


  1. 1948, Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits by Bertrand Russell, Section: Part II: Language, Chapter I: The Uses of Language Quote Page 60, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified with scans)

I Would Never Die for My Beliefs Because I Might Be Wrong

Bertrand Russell? Ayn Rand? Apocryphal?

russell08Dear Quote Investigator: Recently, while reading my Facebook feed I saw a graphic from a major media organization (The Economist) that displayed a picture of the influential philosopher Bertrand Russell coupled with the following quotation:

I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong.

Are these really the words of Russell? I could not find a proper citation.

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in a piece by the well-known columnist Leonard Lyons in the “New York Post” in June 1964. After mentioning that Bertrand Russell was still politically active at the age of 92, Lyons discussed an exchange he had with the famous intellectual in the past. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Incidentally, I once asked Russell if he was willing to die for his beliefs. “Of course not,” he replied. “After all, I may be wrong . . .”

The phrasing above differed from the version given by the questioner because Lyons and Russell were engaged in a question and answer interaction. But Russell’s response in context provided the match.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading I Would Never Die for My Beliefs Because I Might Be Wrong


  1. 1964 June 23, New York Post, Section: Post Daily Magazine, The Lyons Den by Leonard Lyons, Quote Page 27 (Magazine Page 3), Column 3, New York. (Old Fulton)

War Does Not Determine Who Is Right — Only Who Is Left

Bertrand Russell? Frank P. Hobgood? Jessie Woodrow Wilson Sayre? Reader’s Digest? Montreal Star? Andrew Carnegie? Winston Churchill? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A piquant slogan has been used by pacifists and peace activists for decades. Here are two variants:

  • War does not determine who is right — only who is left.
  • The atom bomb will never determine who is right — only who is left.

The first saying is often attributed to the philosopher and social thinker Bertrand Russell, but I have never seen a precise reference to support this connection. Would you please examine this expression?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Bertrand Russell wrote or spoke this adage.

The earliest citation located by QI appeared without attribution in “The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix” of Saskatchewan, Canada in August 1931 within an article containing miscellaneous expressions under the title “The Daily Starbeams”. Emphasis added to excepts by QI: 1

“War does not determine who is right.” It only determines who is left.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading War Does Not Determine Who Is Right — Only Who Is Left


  1. 1931 August 22, The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, The Daily Starbeams, Quote Page 11, Column 3, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. (Newspapers_com)

The Best Lack All Conviction While the Worst Are Full of Passionate Intensity

William Butler Yeats? Bertrand Russell? Charles Bukowski?

Dear Quote Investigator: Have you ever been absolutely certain about a fact and later determined that you were completely wrong? If you learn from that experience you become less arrogant and more empathetic. I wish more people would achieve this form of personal growth. Here are three versions of a relevant saying:

The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.

The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent full of doubt.

This thought has been linked to the Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet W. B. Yeats, the prominent British philosopher Bertrand Russell, and the notable American writer Charles Bukowski. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The three individuals you mentioned each expressed different versions of this idea, and detailed citations are given below.

In 1920 W. B. Yeats published the poem “The Second Coming”, and the final two lines of the first section presented an instance of the saying. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Best Lack All Conviction While the Worst Are Full of Passionate Intensity


  1. Date: 1920 November, Periodical: The Dial, Article Title: Ten Poems, Poem: The Second Coming, Author: William Butler Yeats, Quote Page: 466, Publisher: The Dial Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link

The Chains of Habit Are Too Light To Be Felt Until They Are Too Heavy To Be Broken

Warren Buffett? Samuel Johnson? Maria Edgeworth? Bertrand Russell? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: I recall seeing a lecture by the famed investor Warren Buffett during which he cautioned his audience to avoid falling into self-destructive behavior patterns. He used this eloquent analysis:

The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.

While searching for a source I found some other versions of the statement. Here are two that are credited to the brilliant dictionary-maker Samuel Johnson:

The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken

The diminutive chains of habit are seldom heavy enough to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.

I was unable to find a precise citation to Dr. Johnson’s works. Could you examine this adage?

Quote Investigator: Investor Warren Buffett did use this phrase more than once during speeches, but he did not claim credit for originating the saying. Detailed citations are given further below.

The expression has a long history, and the famous lexicographer and man of letters Samuel Johnson did write a prolix passage that was transformed and simplified in an evolutionary process that ultimately produced the concise modern aphorism used by Buffett.

In 1748 Johnson published an allegorical fable about the path to the Temple of Happiness titled “The Vision of Theodore”. The story warned readers using a symbolic figure named Habit who would bind the unwary in chains. A bound individual would be taken to a grim destination called the caverns of Despair. The following excerpt displayed a conceptual match to the modern saying. In addition, Johnson used the phrase “too strong to be broken” which was retained in some modern instances. Boldface has been added below: 1

It was the peculiar artifice of Habit not to suffer her power to be felt at first. Those whom she led, she had the address of appearing only to attend, but was continually doubling her chains upon her companions; which were so slender in themselves, and so silently fastened, that while the attention was engaged by other objects, they were not easily perceived. Each link grew tighter as it had been longer worn, and when, by continual additions, they became so heavy as to be felt, they were very frequently too strong to be broken.

In the early 1800s an influential Irish writer named Maria Edgeworth crafted a compact version of the sentiment expressed by Samuel Johnson. Her book “Moral Tales for Young People” (second edition 1806) included a story called “Forester”, and in one scene the title character picked up a pair of scissors and twirled them on his finger absentmindedly. The character believed that this habit was undesirable: 2

He was rather ashamed to perceive that he had not yet cured himself of such a silly habit. “I thought the lesson I got at the brewery,” said he, “would have cured me for ever of this foolish trick; but the diminutive chains of habit, as somebody says, are scarcely ever heavy enough to be felt, till they are too strong to be broken.

Maria Edgeworth placed a footnote asterisk after the phrase “chains of habit”, and in the footnote she referenced “Dr. Johnson’s Vision of Theodore.” Edgeworth’s concise summary statement was clearly derived from Johnson’s story, but her expression was distinctive and did not appear directly in the fable’s text. Her forthright acknowledgement of Johnson probably facilitated some later confusion.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Chains of Habit Are Too Light To Be Felt Until They Are Too Heavy To Be Broken


  1. 1748 April, The Gentleman’s Magazine, Volume 18, “The Vision of Theodore, The Hermit of Teneriffe, Found in His Cell” (by Samuel Johnson), Start Page 159, Quote Page 160, Printed by E. Cave, St John’s Gate, London. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1806, Moral Tales For Young People by Miss Edgeworth (Maria Edgeworth), Volume 1, Second Edition, Forester, Quote Page 86, Printed for J. Johnson, London. (Google Books full view) link

It Is the Mark of a Truly Intelligent Person To Be Moved By Statistics

George Bernard Shaw? Bertrand Russell? Oscar Wilde? John H. Gibbons? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The following quotation is used by speakers who are planning to project a series of slides that are filled with statistics. The words are credited to the famous dramatist and intellectual George Bernard Shaw. Here are two versions:

The sign of a truly educated person is to be deeply moved by statistics.

It is the mark of a truly intelligent person to be moved by statistics.

The second version was printed in the Congressional Record in 2008. I have been unable to identify the original source of this remark, and I think knowing the context is essential. Neither expression sounds like something that Bernard Shaw would say. But perhaps it was employed by a character in one of his plays, and the words were satirical. Could you examine this quote?

Quote Investigator: QI believes that the origin of this saying can be traced back to a book authored by another prominent intellectual. In 1926 Bertrand Russell, the British philosopher and essayist, published “Education and the Good Life” which included a chapter titled “The Aims of Education”.

Russell listed four characteristics forming the basis of an ideal character: vitality, courage, sensitiveness, and intelligence. Education, he believed, should develop and enhance these qualities. His discussion of sensitiveness included a phrase mentioning statistics. Boldface is used to highlight key phrases in the following: 1 2

The next stage in the development of a desirable form of sensitiveness is sympathy. There is a purely physical sympathy: a very young child will cry because a brother or sister is crying. This, I suppose, affords the basis for the further developments.

The two enlargements that are needed are: first, to feel sympathy even when the sufferer is not an object of special affection; secondly, to feel it when the suffering is merely known to be occurring, not sensibly present. The second of these enlargements depends mainly upon intelligence. It may only go so far as sympathy with suffering which is portrayed vividly and touchingly, as in a good novel; it may, on the other hand, go so far as to enable a man to be moved emotionally by statistics. This capacity for abstract sympathy is as rare as it is important.

The phrase about statistics was memorable, and in May 1926 the reviewer of Russell’s book in the New York Times selected the words and reprinted them: 3

Sensitiveness is the capacity for emotional response. Nor is there anything mawkish about it: “The emotional reaction must be in some sense appropriate; mere intensity is not what is needed.” Sympathy, yes, but a discriminating sympathy. It should not only be refined, but extended by the intellect—even so far “as to enable a man to be moved emotionally by statistics.”

In June 1926 Glenn Frank published an editorial calling for action against the high rate of illiteracy in the United States. Frank was the President of the University of Wisconsin and the former editor of Century Magazine. His piece mentioned Russell’s remark about statistics: 4

As Bertrand Russell has suggested, the test of the quality of our sympathy comes when we are called upon to aid suffering or need when the needy one is neither an object of special affection nor sensibly present.
Are we great enough to be “moved emotionally by statistics?”
I do not know a statistical figure that is freighted with more human drama than this: 5,000,000 illiterate Americans.

The citations below trace the evolution of the quotation over the decades. For many years, different iterations of the saying were credited to Bertrand Russell, but curiously the expression was reassigned to George Bernard Shaw by 1981. Both men were noteworthy intellectuals residing in England, and they had overlapping life spans. QI believes that the similarity of names “Bernard” and “Bertrand” facilitated the mistaken transition of the attribution to Shaw.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading It Is the Mark of a Truly Intelligent Person To Be Moved By Statistics


  1. 1926, Education and the Good Life by Bertrand Russell, The Aims of Education, Start Page 47, Quote Page 71, Liveright Publishing Group, New York. (Reprint created after 1954 renewal of copyright) (Verified on paper)
  2. 1961, The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell: 1903-1959, Edited by Robert E. Egner and Lester E. Denonn, The Aims of Education, Start Page 413, Quote Page 423, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1926 May 30, New York Times, Bertrand Russell Depicts the Intelligent Radical: He Offers New Lamps for Old in a Scheme for Educating the Post-War Child by Evans Clark (Review of “Education and the Good Life” by Bertrand Russell), Page BR7, New York. (ProQuest)
  4. 1926 June 3, Washington Post, Let’s Read and Write by 1930 by Glenn Frank, Quote Page 6, Column 5, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)