Debunked: Einstein wrote "blind belief in authority is the greatest enemy of truth"


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I saw this quote posted on Facebook and, as usual, as well as wondering whether the assertion was valid I wondered whether Einstein really said this.

A google search for "Einstein authority quote" shows that, along with a variation of the same quote, it pops up repeatedly among the most popular results:


Surprsingly, since most of the quotes I've looked at for Einstein (and others) seem to be either made up or said by someone else, this one does seem to have Einstein as its source, but has been slightly mistranslated/misinterpreted. It comes from a letter he wrote to Jost Winteler, with whom he had boarded while at school in Aarau, Switzerland. In the letter, written on July 8th, 1901 (when he was aged 22), Einstein complained about German physicist Paul Drude, editor of Annelen der Physik, who had dismissed EInstein's criticism of his electron theory of metals (now known as the Drude Model). Einstein wrote to Winteler:
"Was Sie über die deutschen Professoren gesagt haben, ist gar nicht über-trieben. Ich habe wieder ein trauriges Subjekt dieser Art kennen gelernt – einen derersten Physiker Deutschlands. Auf zwei sachliche Einwände, welche ich ihm gegen eine seiner Theorien anführte, und die einen direkten Defekt seiner Schlüsse darthun, antwortet er mir mit dem Hinweis, daß ein anderer (unfehlbarer) Kollege von ihm der selben Meinung sei. Ich werde dem Mann demnächst mit einer tüchtigen Veröffentlichung ein heizen. Autoritätsdusel ist der größte Feind der Wahrheit."

"What you have said about German professors is not exaggerated. I have got to know another sad specimen of this kind - one of the foremost physicists of Germany. To two pertinent objections which I raised against one of his theories and which demonstrate a direct defect in his conclusions, he responds by pointing out that another (infallible) colleague of his shares his opinion. I'll soon make it hot for the man with a masterly publication. Autoritätsdusel is the greatest enemy of truth." (German) (English)
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I've left the word "autoritätsdusel" untranslated, since this is the key to the quote. Princeton translates it as "authority gone to one's head", and in a paper published in Science and Engineering Ethics, it is translated as "the stupor of authority" ("dusel" meaning "stupor or daze"). This translation was also agreed upon by a group of native German speakers in a forum thread (also noting that it is somewhat "old German"). In this interpretation the onus is placed on the person in authority, and the effect that being in authority may have, rather than in "blind obedience to authority" (as The Ultimate Quotable Einstein has it) or "unthinking respect", which was how it was rendered on wikiquote (until recently).

In a nutshell: yes, kind of written by (a very young) Einstein, but later mistranslated and given an incorrect meaning.

(Whether his criticisms of Drude's theory were valid, I'm not sure. There's a long paper on the subject here, if anyone wants to take a look.)
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Gefühlsduselei, die​

umgangssprachlich abwertend

durch übertriebenes Gefühl, übertriebene Sentimentalität bestimmtes Denken, Verhalten

It says the word is "colloquial derogatory" and then defines it as "thought or behaviour that is determined by excessive emotion, excessive sentimentality".

I think "blind belief in authority is the greatest enemy of truth" is actually a pretty good translation, because the physicist in questions believes both in his own authority as well as the authority of the colleague he's referencing. It may have been more carefully translated as "excessive belief in authority", but that's fairly synonymous with "blind belief".
I'm not sure I understand the reference to "gefühlsduselei", as this word doesn't appear in the quote.
I'm not sure I understand the reference to "gefühlsduselei", as this word doesn't appear in the quote.
I believe that is the closest word to "Autoritätsdusel" that is actually in the dictionary. And the dictionary is an authority! ;-)

The German language has this mix and match method of building words where you can usually replace components in a composite word and retain the same relationship. So Gefühlsduselei is to Gefühl what Autoritätsduselei is to Autorität; it's just replacing "emotion" with "authority". This is helpful because that word is more common and better understood, and quite possibly the template that Einstein coined his word from.

Being drunk with authority is the greatest enemy of the truth.

Now replace "authority" with "power" and I might even agree.
I wonder if the important component here is to do with the time Einstein was writing in. In the thread I linked above, one commenter wrote:

The fact that Einstein's way of phrasing it in German being slightly old-fashioned doesn't help here either.

I've found only a small number of uses of "autoritätsdusel" online - including one in a book by Iba Roy-Ed, one in a play by Ibsen - and they all date from 100+ years ago (I doubt whether Einstein "coined it"). There may therefore be a difficulty in applying modern standards and meaning (as well as modern dictionaries) to it.

This is from Grimm's Dictionary (I think 1860):
Dusel, m.

A word that is widespread throughout Germany, has multiple meanings and is rarely included in the written language. The original meaning is slumber, half asleep, dreamy waking, and because the thoughts get confused in it, it initially denotes numbness, absence of the spirit, dull life, tumult, dizziness, vertigo capitis
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This seems more in line with the translation of "autoritätsdusel" as "stupor of authority". "Drunk" I think has a slight but significant difference in connotation. And "blind belief" seems to me like it must have been born out of mistranslation, no matter how true or appropriate it may be.
Ibsen is a good precedent; maybe Einstein saw that play?
"Der Volksfeind":
Hovstadt. Allerdings. Er gehört mit zu denen, die im Sumpf stecken, – so ein braver Mann er auch sonst sein mag. Und so sind die meisten hier bei uns; sie schwanken und wanken nach beiden Seiten; vor lauter Rücksichten und Bedenken wagen sie nie, einen ganzen Schritt zu tun.

Stockmann. Ja, aber Aslaksen scheint mir doch recht anständige Gesinnungen zu haben.

Hovstadt. Es gibt was, das ich noch höher stelle; und das ist: dazustehen als ein unabhängiger, selbstsicherer Mann.

Stockmann. Da gebe ich Ihnen vollständig recht.

Hovstadt. Deshalb will ich jetzt die Gelegenheit nicht vorübergehen lassen, zu versuchen, ob ich die besseren Elemente bei uns nicht dahin bringen kann, sich aufzuraffen mit einem Mal. Der Autoritätsdusel hier muß aufhören. Dieser unverantwortliche Mißgriff mit dem Wasserwerk muß allen stimmberechtigten Mitbürgern zu Gemüte geführt werden.

The same place, slightly extended, translated by Farquharson Sharp, December, 2000, "An Enemy of the People"
Aslaksen. The authorities are somewhat slow to move, Doctor. Far be it from me to seem to blame them--

Hovstad. We are going to stir them up in the paper tomorrow, Aslaksen.

Aslaksen. But not violently, I trust, Mr. Hovstad. Proceed with moderation, or you will do nothing with them. You may take my advice; I have gathered my experience in the school of life.
Well, I must say goodbye, Doctor. You know now that we small tradesmen are at your back at all events, like a solid wall. You have the compact majority on your side Doctor.

Dr. Stockmann. I am very much obliged, dear Mr. Aslaksen, (Shakes hands with him.) Goodbye, goodbye.

Aslaksen. Are you going my way, towards the printing-office. Mr. Hovstad?

Hovstad, I will come later; I have something to settle up first.

Aslaksen. Very well. (Bows and goes out; STOCKMANN follows him into the hall.)

Hovstad (as STOCKMANN comes in again). Well, what do you think of that, Doctor? Don't you think it is high time we stirred a little life into all this slackness and vacillation and cowardice?

Dr. Stockmann. Are you referring to Aslaksen?

Hovstad, Yes, I am. He is one of those who are floundering in a bog--decent enough fellow though he may be, otherwise. And most of the people here are in just the same case--see-sawing and edging first to one side and then to the other, so overcome with caution and scruple that they never dare to take any decided step.

Dr. Stockmann, Yes, but Aslaksen seemed to me so thoroughly well-intentioned.

Hovstad. There is one thing I esteem higher than that; and that is for a man to be self-reliant and sure of himself.

Dr. Stockmann. I think you are perfectly right there.

Hovstad. That is why I want to seize this opportunity, and try if I cannot manage to put a little virility into these well-intentioned people for once. The idol of Authority must be shattered in this town. This gross and inexcusable blunder about the water supply must be brought home to the mind of every municipal voter.

Arthur Miller: An Enemy of the People
Hovstad: Isn’t it time we pumped some guts into these well-intentioned men of good will? Under all their liberal talk they still idolize authority, and that’s got to be rooted out of this town. This blunder of the water system has to be made clear to every voter. Let me print your report.

Ibsen seems to be referring here to people like Aslaksen who refer to authority instead of deciding for themselves.
With respect to the two German words I asked a German speaking Swiss friend what they meant (on the assumption that Einstein was probably writing in Switzerland). His response:

The word "Duselei" can have a number of meanings, all according to context and any additional terms attached to it, so I'll have to go into a bit of an explanation for both, if it's all the same to you. The terms you mention are not necessarily colloquial, although in some situations they may be used that way.
Autoritätsduselei: essentially it means being, sort of, bewildered or confused about authority. It's mostly used when folks simply follow orders, even ridiculous orders issued by some sort of authority without thinking about it.
Gefühlsduselei: means being overly sentimental or overly mawkish about feelings, whether in a group or individually. It can, for instance, be applied to some fellow embarrassingly declaring his love for some woman, or again on a wider level, when more reserved folks observe how others greet each other with hugs and air kisses.
So I guess to call the original quote "debunked" is perhaps a little premature, unless I want to argue that Einstein didn't say/write "blind belief in authority is the greatest enemy of truth" because the sentence he actually wrote was in German, and its translation is open to interpretation.

It almost seems like which interpretation a person goes with is more a reflection of their personality than an identifiable objective fact. So I guess without the benefit of Einstein's input, either or both are on the table.

Regarding the informative comment immediately above, I thought that was good input, but I'm wary about directly comparing the 2020 meaning of "autoritätsduselei" with the 1901 meaning of "autoritätsdusel" (and maybe someone can explain the addition of the -ei at the end please).

Looking at Ibsen I find interesting. It does seem that "autoritätsdusel" was used in some of the earliest translations of En folkefiende, pre-dating Einstein's letter. This makes me curious about the original Danish word used. Though looking at the context of the play, I can see no support for the interpretation I originally put forward, so I guess I must retract that, eat a little bit of humble pie, and forsake the glee that comes from finding a dodgy quote.
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Looking at Ibsen I find interesting. It does seem that "autoritätsdusel" was used in some of the earliest translations of En folkefiende, pre-dating Einstein's letter. This makes me curious about the original Danish word used.
Well that was easy: the first search result I landed on provides parallel texts for Norwegian, English, German and Chinese:


Here it's translated as "the worship of authority" - and unlike the difficulty in translating the German "autoritätsdusel" into English, "autoritetsdyrkelsen" seems pretty straightforward (the more modern "idol must be shattered" above seems a nice poetic license). Though whether that helps identify what Einstein really meant, I'm not sure.

Still, I suppose the 'debunking' has now been 'undebunked', and "blind belief" may not be too much of a stretch after all (if perhaps a little stronger than it could be).

Oh, and one last thing: I also noticed that the editor of The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, Alice Calaprice (who translated it as "blind belief...") was also heavily involved in the Einstein Papers Project (where it's translated as "authority gone to one's head"). I suppose the next thing to do is write to some of the people there.
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(and maybe someone can explain the addition of the -ei at the end please).
"Esel" is an ass. "Eselei" is what you commit when you behave like an ass.
Basically, it's the act or product of the state indicated before the "-ei".
-ei can also be used to nounify verbs to indicate an excess: for example "das Klettern" would be "climbing", but "Kletterei" would denote an excessive climb.
I suppose the next thing to do is write to some of the people there.

So I wrote to the two translators listed as "current" on the Einstein Papers Project and received pretty immediate responses. The first said he didn't think the word "belief" was necessarily implied, and proposed “subservience to authority” or “blind obedience to authority”. He also said the current translation in the Papers - "authority gone to one's head" - seemed contrary to the meaning intended.

The second wrote me a very nice and detailed 750-word email in which he said he would translate it as "unthinking acceptance of authority is the principal enemy of the truth". He said he preferred the word "principal" (or "major") to "greatest", as the meaning of "greatest" could be ambiguous. He also added some political and geographical context:

The 'political' background is that the quote is meant ironically, referring to the German (Prussian) obsession with order, discipline and respect for authority. Prussia led the project of German unification in 1871, and it was resented by most of the southern German states, but they were forced into submission by the military superiority of Prussia (the 'Northern German Confederation'), demonstrated in a series of wars in the previous 10 years. So the expression "Autoritatsdusel" (or "-duselei") is also an ironic comment on that Prussian tendency from the point of view of southern German (and Swiss) culture [and it] may have been a "fashionable" word in the early 20th century, particularly to Einstein, because of his own personal history and of German history in the later 19th century

I guess I've gone around the houses with this, and pretty much come back to where it started, not a million miles from the original meme quote. Perhaps the meaning intended by Einstein will never be 100% clear - though it does appear that I was wrong in labelling certain interpretations as "mistranslations" and in supporting the idea that he meant a problem that comes from having authority, rather than adhering to authority. There are many layers of irony here, given all the references to authority - not least me placing too much 'faith' in the authority of the Einstein Papers (and too much joy in thinking I'd found something that was 'incorrect').

To summarise:

- There's a meme quote attributed to Einstein that says "blind belief in/unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth"
- He did actually write something like this - ie, it's not misattributed - in a letter to Jost Winteler (July 8th, 1901)
- The sentence he wrote in German was "Autoritätsdusel ist der größte Feind der Wahrheit"
- The word "autoritätsdusel" is not easily translatable into English; it's old German, and colloquial (as well as perhaps ironically intended)
- The Einstein Papers Project has it translated as "authority gone to one's head", while other places as "the stupor of authority"; but after going through everything here there doesn't appear to be much support for either of these
- Two current translators working on the Einstein Papers Project told me they would translate "autoritätsdusel" as "unthinking acceptance of [or] subservience/blind obedience to authority"
- "Blind obedience" is how The Ultimate Quotable Einstein has it
- This isn't a million miles from the original meme quote
- Therefore my original debunking is debunked. I was wrong in the beginning and now I'm not sure (better to acquiesce to the "authority")
- I do need to fix that wikiquote edit though
- The Ibsen angle was interesting, but whether useful or not I don't know (an 1880s translation of the Danish "autoritetsdyrkelsen" (the worship of authority) into the German "autoritätsdusel"
- I guess it's a case of "there are a few possible translations, but the general meaning seems more or less clear"
- And, for once, the quote memers aren't necessarily 'wrong'

PS I would still like to look at the paper that attempts to figure out the argument between Einstein and Drude. From what I remember, there may be more layers of irony here: for where Einstein thinks Drude was saying, "see the work of my esteemed colleague, he agrees with me so I must be right", it may be that he was actually saying, "see the work of Boltzmann, which is key to my theory. You don't appear to be aware of it, so you're missing important information."

Insert here a quote on the folly of youth. ;)
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and too much joy in thinking I'd found something that was 'incorrect'
I don't believe you had "too much" joy, you kept questioning and accepting critical input.

The one thing you can learn here is that concepts rarely match between languages; the connotations of a phrase are culturally determined, and they're often not able to be reproduced with all the original shadings when you translate them.
Right. And especially when the meaning has changed even in the country and language that it stems from, due to the passing of time, fashions, trends, etc, so that its meaning may not even be clear to modern day native speakers - further complicated by the idea that it may have been written ironically or sarcastically (though surely he would have used an emoji if that was the case ;)).

Here's what the professor/translator wrote on that:

"Autoritaetsdusel" is one of those German words that simply cannot be translated as a single English word. Other well-known examples are
"Schadenfreude" and "Gemuetlichkeit", which have been taken over in some other languages because they are untranslatable. Another interesting
aspect is that "Autoritaetsdusel" is not really a word in Standard German, i.e. in the formal language. It is a word that is essentialy obsolete in
modern German and hardly appears in written German except in a historical context.

As for "too much joy" - I definitely did have too much, but the facts were (unfortunately) undeniable in this case. ;)
As with most words with different meanings, even for Autoritätsdusel can be (differently) translated.

The German Reference Duden describes Dusel as¹):
Use: umgangssprachlich (colloquial <coll.>)
a) random luck while being absent-minded (ie. walking a red light unintentionally and nearly being hit by a car).
b) drowsiness, dizzyness.
c) being under a slight (mental) influence of drugs.

In a funny side note, Autoritätsdusel does not mean that authorities (or its members) are drunk.

The spirit of sloth, inertia or inflexibility are what come next to Einsteins use of Autoritätsdusel. Authorities have reputation, as well as responsibility. The latter means that someone who is professionally commited to research and science should mostly care about professional values rather than using his professional position. In politics it means that a national leader should do what's best for his people, and listen to experts and professional because no-one is a Mr. Know-it-all, and to be at a level near to the people and not “above the clouds“.

Einstein raised objections that “demonstrate a direct defect in his [professor's] conclusions”. Instead of imposing academic standards and review Einstein's objections, the professor simply rejects Einstein's concerns with the 'argument' that some other colleage shares the same opinion. He uses his position like, a student must not question the authority of his professor or master with 'objections'. From a different and broader perspective, it can be translated with “blind belief” in a social, economical or political system.

In old MGM cartoons you see the excessive use of glue. Same goes for some specific politicians using superglue yet to be invented to stay on their positions despite ignoring all warnings, expert and professional opinions and argumentation.

The use of Autoritätsdusel is limited to a relationship between a person and a (public) authority. In a second way, but not used by Einstein, it can be used to describe an authority that is very slow (like sloth Flash at the DMV in Zootopia).
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