The Greatest Obstacle to Discovery Is Not Ignorance—It Is the Illusion of Knowledge

Daniel J. Boorstin? Stephen Hawking? Henry Thomas Buckle? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Widely accepted false beliefs can hinder progress and new discoveries. For example, the mistaken belief that heavier-than-air flying machines were impossible or impractical deterred requisite financing and investigation. This thought has been expressed as follows:

The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge.

The famous physicist Stephen Hawking and the Librarian of the U.S. Congress Daniel J. Boorstin have both been credited with this statement, but I am having trouble finding good citations. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: This saying was attributed to Stephen Hawking by 2001, but QI has been unable to find substantive evidence that he actually employed it.

The best-selling author, educator, and librarian Daniel J. Boorstin was interviewed in “The Washington Post” in January 1984. He modestly referred to himself as an amateur historian because his primary background was the legal profession. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

What an amateur is, is a lover of a subject. I’m a lover of facts. The fact is the savior, as long as you don’t jam it into some preconceived pattern. The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance—it is the illusion of knowledge.

Boorstin employed different versions of the saying over the years, but he did not assert that the underlying idea was his own. Indeed, he once ascribed a similar notion to the well-known historian Edward Gibbon, and on another occasion, he called it an aphorism. Detailed citations are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Greatest Obstacle to Discovery Is Not Ignorance—It Is the Illusion of Knowledge

Notes:

  1. 1984 January 29, The Washington Post, The 6 O’Clock Scholar: Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin And His Love Affair With Books by Carol Krucoff, Start Page K1, Quote Page K8, Column 2, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)