You know what they say about what they say

Abstract: Science explains why you should beware those who employ the wisdom of they.

You know what they say: a good man is hard to find. If you’re nodding your head in agreement you’re guilty of employing one the oldest tricks in the book of twisted logic, as well as a form of selective thinking popular with psychology. Don’t feel bad, just about everyone does it.

Forget war correspondents; investigative journalists are the real hardcore purveyors of the so-called ‘fourth estate’, because, like Jack Russells on acid, they’ll dig and dig until their paws are bloody and the evidence of their digging is piled proudly next to them. They believe in following the trail to find the original source of a claim, because that is where you’ll find not only true accountability but also the real nub of a story.

Science journalists have to be investigative because unfortunately the phrase “scientists have shown that” appears in the press far too often ahead of stories which are, in effect, shadows of the evidence from the actual research. Somewhere between the reams of dry experimentation figures, the spin of the publishing research organisation, and the word-crunching and headline-fixation of the editorial team, the truth of the research is smudged beyond recognition.

As a result, wild allegations are made, often to support preconceived ideas, and the next thing you know people are happily bulk-buying slabs of chocolate because “scientists have shown that” eating chocolate can reduce the risk of cancer.

This is why I get more than a little miffed when people employ proverbs, or sayings, as evidence of truth, specifically to justify their actions or opinions.

A proverb is, at best, a wonderfully laconic and often witty phrase that captures a burst of thought, often from persons unknown, supposedly to reflect the moral zeitgeist of a particular period in history. And here’s the best part: often for reasons that defy logic, they’re embraced in the bosom of popular discourse and become embedded into culture as fact.

So where do they come from, these deeply philosophical edicts? For the answer to that we need to employ a little investigative journalism and follow the path back to the origins of more modern popular sayings. Here’s an easy one: “I’ll be back”, which has become something of a maxim for temporarily retreating to gather one’s wits before re-entering the fray.

It was of course mumbled by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s title character in the film ‘The Terminator’. Interestingly, in a recent BBC TV interview, Schwarzenegger admitted that when he read the script that line never stood out, and that he and the film’s producers were puzzled when it became one of the most quoted lines in recent film history.

Here’s another example, and a proverb you’ve no doubt used after returning from a holiday away, especially one that was a little too adventurous: “There’s no place like home”. It dates back to 1939 and the film ‘The Wizard of Oz’. It was uttered by Judy Garland’s character, Dorothy, as the magic phrase to get her away from the witches and Munchkins and back to the supposed sanity of rural Kansas.

Get the picture, if you excuse the pun? If you trace many of the sayings that are popular in the English language you’ll find as their origin not the logical and morally virtuous contemplation of the world’s greatest philosophers, but instead the whimsical penmanship of writers and poets.

This begs the question: should they therefore be considered the bedrock of moral judgment? In case you think I’m being a little melodramatic, if you were to do a little bit more research, you’d find that the two most common words that appear in proverbs in the English language are the prescriptive ‘never’ and the somewhat judgmental ‘good’. As a result, such proverbs seem to have evolved into cultural commandments, often preceded by the phrase, “you know what they say”.

Whenever someone infers a measure of moral judgment by saying that – “you know what they say” – I always get a little puckish. I immediately invoke the investigative journalist in me and inquire, “And who, exactly, are ‘they’?” This is an important clarification, because the informed perspective of a research scientist carries a lot more weight than the empty rhetoric of a politician trawling for votes. And when the claimant of this accepted truth can’t name the origin, what do they do? They invariably point to an event or person as evidence of the truthfulness of the proverb. Psychology has a term for this: confirmation bias – the identification of events to confirm a preconceived belief.

Case in point: A woman will tearfully shrug and turn to her consoling posse of girlfriends and claim, “You know what they say – a good man is hard to find”. She will say this as if it is a learned fact passed down by successive generations of women, jilted by a never-ending stream of incorrigible and ill-behaved men. She will provide as evidence to support this belief the four boyfriends who have dumped her over as many years.

Unfortunately she’ll be unaware of two things: the phrase ‘a good man is hard to find’ was the title of a 1918 song, written by a man called Eddie Green; and the reason so many of her boyfriends have dumped her may have less to do with the vagaries of man than her rather casual approach to personal hygiene.

Originally published in the Sunday Tribune, 18 November 2012.