Confirmation Quotation Was Fake

This post is a quick follow-up to my last one. Over the weekend, I observed a strange situation where a story spreading across the internet quoted a man in two different ways. Here is the article and subhead from the post as it was originally run:


Here is text from the body of the article:


The phrase, "Kill yourself immediately" is an internet meme some nnline commenters have co-opted as a joke. Like any meme, it's meaning goes beyond the words themselves. That means the difference between it and"kill himself immediately" is more than grammatical. Even if that weren't true, it is very strange for a newspaper to publish different versions of the same quotation, much less within one article.

Naturally, I concluded (at least) one of these quotations must be fake. I noted this almost immediately upon first seeing the story linked to on Twitter:

Following from this, I spent some time talking to people in various locations about the issue. A while after that, the paper (The Independent) which published the two differing quotations (The Independent) edited the article to remove both versions of the quotations. It did this secretly, without any indication. I criticized it for this as secretly changing published material is dishonest and unethical.

Some time later, The Independent edited the article again to add a note indicating the original change. While I applaud the effort, secretly editing a piece to hide the fact you secretly edited the piece seems... awkward. Moreover, the note The Independent added did nothing to address the fact it had provided contradictory versions of this quotation.

My discussion of these issues led a person to contact the quoted individual. You can read his account of things here. In it, he quotes the person whose remark started all this as saying:

“On Thursday, December 8, I was contacted by Ian Johnston from The Independent, ostensibly to talk about my paper on climate change and extinction that was being published in PLoS Biology (the paper actually received serious reporting by Brandie Wiekle from CBC News and others).

“Unfortunately, Mr. Johnston admitted that he had not read my paper, and apparently had little interest in talking about it. It turned out that he only wanted to talk about Donald Trump. I did not. He asked me what I would say to Donald Trump. I said that I really did not think that Donald Trump cared at all what I thought.

“Obviously, I hoped that this would be the end of the topic. He persisted. I did therefore say that Trump should “kill himself immediately” (i.e., his doing this seems about as likely as him following any recommendation from an obscure scientist like myself about stopping climate change). I then made sure that it was clear that it was a joke.”


The man was apparently unhappy with aspects of the story and contacted The Independent about this. That's why it removed the quotations from its articel. That is good to know (and what I suggested had happened), but what I find more interesting is he claims he said "kill himself immediately." That is not the internet meme, "Kill yourself immediately." This would seem to confirm that quotation was in fact fake.

Why did The Independent run a fake quote in the body of its text? I don't know. I also don't know why it was so obvious to me the quotation was fishy while "skeptic" sites like Watts Up With That ran it without question. It seems pretty weird. Perhaps some people who ran the fake quotation will correct the record. I doubt it though. It's too good a story to question.

In any event, I think that resolves this issue. There don't seem to be any facts in dispute anymore. I could write a few paragraphs to condemn dishonest and unethical behavior, mock people for their lack of skepticism or any number of other things, but... eh. I'm tired of worrying about that stuff. Instead, I'd like to point something else out: I was right.

I'm not saying that to gloat (well, maybe just a little). I'm saying it because this was so incredibly obvious to me. A professional newspaper provided two different versions of the same quotation within one article, and somehow, nobody at the newspaper and nobody promoting the story across the internet noticed. That's just crazy.

Oh, and for documentation purposes, here are archived copies of the article in each of its forms: Original, secretly edited, updated to note the alteration<?a>.


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