[Ads-l] Saying: Half of what we teach you is wrong, but we don't know which half

ADSGarson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Wed Apr 13 21:28:18 UTC 2022

Thanks to JL and Marc Sacks for their responses mentioning sayings of
the type presented in the subject line in which a lecturer or educator
admits that the knowledge being transmitted to recipients is flawed
and incomplete.

Barry Popik mentioned these sayings within his article about "Half the
money spent on advertising is wasted …"  Barry listed citations in the
medical domain in 1953, 1956, 1961, 1995, 2001, and 2008.

This family of sayings is difficult to trace (for me). Here are a few
selected items I found today. In 1917 C. P. Dadant used a version of
the saying while delivering a lecture about bees:

[ref] 1917, The Twenty-Second Annual Report of the Illinois Farmers’
Institute: A Handbook of Agriculture, Proceedings of the Twenty-Second
Annual Meeting, Held in Streator, Illinois on February 21, 22, and 23,
1917, Friday Afternoon Session on February 23, 1917, The Usefulness of
Bees in Horticulture and the Value of Honey as a Diet by Mr. C. P.
Dadant, Start Page 176, Quote Page 177, Illinois State Journal
Company, Springfield, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]


[Begin excerpt]
Josh Billings said: “What is the use of knowing so much when half of
what we do know ain’t so?” [Laughter] It is quite probable that half
of what I am going to tell you to-day ain’t so, but I don’t know which
half. It will be for you to find out. [Laughter.]
[End excerpt]

In 1944 G.M. executive Charles F. Kettering attributing an instance to
an unnamed medical educator:

[ref] 1944 September 10, The Courier-Journal, Section: Roto Magazine,
Off the Cuff by Ed Edstrom, Quote Page 26, Column 2, Louisville,
Kentucky. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

[Begin excerpt]
Charles F. Kettering, General Motors research director and inventor of
the automobile self-starter, tells of a friend of his, a professor at
a famed medical school, whose every word is written down by his eager
young students. On graduating day, when he delivers his last lecture
he generally says this to the class: “I’ve been lecturing to you boys
on medicine for the last four years—but I’m afraid that half of what I
told you is wrong. The trouble is, I don't know which half.”
[End excerpt]

In 1948 Carl Sandburg included an instance within his only novel:

[ref] 1948 Copyright, Remembrance Rock by Carl Sandburg, Epilogue:
Storm and Stars, Chapter 4: Floodlights on the Capitol Dome, Quote
Page 1015, Harcourt, Brace & World, New York. (Verified with scans)

[Begin excerpt]
The elder Rolstadt, after talking about the restlessness of the world
of science in its search for new facts and fresh light, told of a
well-known professor at a medical college speaking to his class at the
end of the year and saying: “Young gentlemen, you are well aware, I
believe, I have labored and done my best to give you the latest and
most accurate medical facts. Now however the time has come I must warn
you that before you have been long in practice one half of what I have
told you may be proved untrue. Unfortunately, gentlemen, I cannot tell
you which half.”
[End excerpt]

In 1952 Professor of Medicine G. W. Pickering used the saying in the
pages of "The Lancet" medical journal. Pickering attributed the saying
to a Harvard University Dean:

[ref] 1952 November 8, The Lancet, Opportunity and the Universities by
G. W. Pickering (Professor of Medicine in the University of London at
St. Mary’s Hospital), Note: An address delivered at the inaugural
session of the Medical School of the University of Birmingham on Oct.
6, 1952, Start Page 895, Quote Page 896, Column 2, Published by
Elsevier. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

[Begin excerpt]
As the Dean of Harvard said at a Harvard dinner which I attended: “I
tell my students that in ten years’ time half of what you are taught
will have been shown to be wrong, and the trouble is that neither I
nor any of your teachers know which half.”
[End excerpt]

The website of Harvard Medical School attributes an instance to Dean
Charles Sidney Burwell:


[Begin excerpt]
1935-1949 Charles Sidney Burwell

Dr. Burwell was a cardiologist who specialized in circulation changes
associated with heart disease. He is credited with bringing attention
to obstructive sleep apnea syndrome. In 1944, while Dr. Burwell was
Dean, women entered Harvard Medical School for the first time on an
equal basis with men. In an address to students at the Medical School,
he said, "Half of what we are going to teach you is wrong, and half of
it is right. Our problem is that we don't know which half is which."
[End excerpt]

Garson O'Toole

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

More information about the Ads-l mailing list