Real news and fake news about the God letter

It is better this time, but …

In its previous story about the upcoming auction of Einstein’s 1954 letter to Eric Gutkind, the Uncertaintist opined that compared with coverage of earlier auctions of the item, “press reporting about the letter’s content this time, at least so far, is getting closer to what Einstein wrote.” This improvement was attributed to the auctioneer, Christie’s, having based its pre-sale publicity on reliable transcriptions of Einstein’s handwritten, first-draft German.

To see whether those assessments are justifiable, your ob’d correspondent performed a small experiment, looking at about a dozen prominent reputable news providers’ stories that turn up in the first few pages in simple Google searches. This is not an exhaustive study, and not a statistical estimation of accuracy among press outlets, but just a check whether or not some major media are being truthful about Einstein’s writing, on matters where an accurate transcription would help.

The results were mixed.

The signature flaws of the 2008-12 “translation” which apparently was cranked out by staff at a British auction house and flogged widely by the Guardian newspaper, were an addition to and an omission from Einstein’s statements. The addition was that he had called Bible stories “childish” when he hadn’t. The omission implied that Einstein commented unfavorably on Judaism and all religions when in fact he limited his criticism to the “unadulterated” forms of Judaism and others. In context, Einstein’s German for “adulterated” mirrors Gutkind’s American English expression “watered down.”

An additional prevalent flaw in 2008 and 2012 was to include in Einstein’s criticism of unadulterated Judaism the word childish. The German word which Einstein chose is the cognate of the English word primitive, and primitive is a fair translation of it. It is implausible that any translator would find childish there unless he or she thought (wrongly) that Einstein had already used that term earlier.

In the results which follow, the following codes indicate which of the possible transcription-related errors, if any, were reported as facts at each site:

BC = Einstein called Jewish Bible stories “childish”
UJ = Einstein called all Judaism an incarnation of “primitive superstitions”
UA = Einstein called all religions as above for Judaism
UJ+ and UA+ = As above for UJ and UA, but with childish in place of primitive

Who avoided any of these errors

Barron’s credited to Willa Rubin link

Economic Times (India) credited to Press Trust of India link

LiveScience credited to Brandon Specktor link

Times of Israel credited to Agence-France Presse link
Note: although the Times story itself avoids the errors, it contains an off-site link to an inconsistent 2009-vintage blogger’s “full text” that has all the errors, BC, UJ+ and UA+.

Who committed some or all of these errors

CNN BC, UJ+, UA+ credited to A.J. Willingham link

Independent (UK) BC, UJ+, UA+ credited to staff and agencies link

Huffington Post BC, UJ+, UA+ credited to Carol Kuruvilla link

Jerusalem Post BC, UJ+, UA+ credited to Amy Shapiro link

Miami Herald BC, UJ+, UA+ credited to Josh Magness link

Reuters UJ+, UA+ credited as reporting by Jill Serjeant; editing by Tom Brown link

Washington Post BC, UJ+, UA+ credited to Avi Selk link

Newsweek UJ, UA credited to Hannah Osborne link

Conclusions

Although the same old factual errors were still found more often than not, there are now several major outlets describing the letter without these blemishes. Even Newsweek, which now spins the letter heavily in other ways, completely avoids the childish fabrications. That much accuracy was hard to find in 2012 except in the “blogosphere,” that is, among people who based their reporting on actually having bothered to look at what they were describing.

A majority of the outlets examined were obviously copying from somebody else, rather than checking the easily verified facts for themselves. This is an age when “mainstream media” are often criticized for their lack of independence, their “narratives” set in lockstep with one another’s.

Here is a small matter of simple fact, albeit ideologically charged for many people. If this degree of dependence were observed among high school or college students on an essay test, it would be a cheating scandal. Among these media professionals, it’s apparently business as usual.

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Results were found by the Google searches einstein god letter auction and einstein gutkind letter christie’s, performed last evening (Eastern US Time) 5 October 2018. The only links polled were those from “mainstream” media organizations (not blogs, nor specialized religious and collectibles sites) offeriing original text (not video-centered results) related to the upcoming sale at Christie’s and found among the first four pages of results for either search. If the same credited source appeared on more than one site, then only the first site detected appears on the lists. It was not possible to evaluate the London Times story, since its website failed to respond after making a pay-wall demand.

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