Saturday, December 02, 2006

According to Yogi Berra, or Niels Bohr, or Albert Einstein, or Mark Twain, or Somebody

Maybe he was coming down with a cold. One of my favorite writers, Paul Krugman, began Friday’s column on “Economic Storm Signals” (Times Select Link) with a weary cliché, the kind of tired ironic trope used by speechwriters on a bad day, bloggers looking for an opening hook and columnists on deadline desperate for a lede.
“It’s tough to make predictions,” Yogi Berra is supposed to have said, “especially about the future.” Actually, his remark makes perfect sense to economists, who sometimes have trouble making predictions about the present. And this is one of those times.
Nothing wrong with that. Writers are human. Who among us has not relied on the old Prediction Quote Crutch on one occasion or another? I know I have.

But Yogi Berra? Huh? I thought it was Neils Bohr.

It always seemed such a perfect union of quote and source. Bohr's friend Albert Einstein was famously driven to complain that God does not play dice when Bohr's quantum theory undercut the whole idea of causality -- leading not only to Heisenberg's uncertainty principle that says nothing is or even can be where you think it is, but also to Schrödinger's cat awaiting the invitable collapse of the wave function in that infernal box. But modern quantum theory also became one of the most powerful predictive systems the world has ever known (while you might not be able to predict the path of an individual subatomic particle, their behavior in the aggregate is highly predictable, as any atomic explosion attests). So there always seemed to be many levels of meaning in Bohr's words, with wheels of irony spinning playfully inside other wheels.

But can the words really be traced to Yogi Berra? Sure, the attribution has a certain witty inside-baseball logic. As a manager, Berra's job was all about staying a step ahead, using statistical modeling (i.e., prediction) to size up how his tactical moves are likely to affect the other team. As a catcher, Berra had to try to predict the path of a breaking curveball. Still, it doesn't sound like a phrase he coined himself, so much as one he -- or his attributors -- appropriated.

Berra's public persona -- which seems to have replaced Casey Stengel's in the long-running competition with the ineffable Sam Goldwyn for the title of King of Malapropisms -- has become a vacuum cleaner sucking up other people's pithy, witty quotes that have the right blend of sense and nonsense, of meaning struggling to emerge from chaos, and that sound quotably dumb while at the same time being pregnant with hidden meaning. Or, as Berra put it, "I never said half the things I really said."

So, how goes the competition between Bohr and Berra? Who's on first? Well, to begin with -- they're not the only players. According to Google, Bohr isn't even the leader among public figures who have been quoted as connecting "prediction" and "future."

Topping the list is Einstein. He's followed by Mark Twain, and it does sound like something Twain might have said, even though it seems he would probably have have dressed the concept up in a more folksy Mississippi River metaphor. Bohr is a distant third, and Berra is hardly in the running at all. You get the impression that Berra was not nearly as interested in speculating about how we can know the future as the other luminaries were.
SEARCH STRING: prediction future (name)

875,000 Einstein
584,000 Twain
364,000 Bohr
113,000 Berra
But things change when when you make a more syntactical search, following the sentence structure of the actual quote and using an asterisk to allow for the fact that the wording varies slightly from person to person (i.e., “about” vs. “of”). Now the phrase clearly seems to belong to Bohr, with Yogi clearly coming on strong, while it seems clear that this was one ball neither Einstein nor Twain particularly wanted to play with.
SEARCH STRING: prediction "especially * the future" (name)

31,200 Bohr
18,500 Berra
864 Einstein
539 Twain
What happened? I'm sure a more comprehensive Lexis/Nexis search could nail this down with more precision, but the available Google evidence seems to suggest that Bohr actually once said, "Prediction is difficult, especially about the future," or something very like that. It was quoted and repeated more and more often. Then, as quantum physics lost its allure as the next new thing and became part of the established scientific order and Bohr faded into the pages of scientific history, the quote, like a restless transposon finding a new home in the genome, attached itself to Berra's name.

You can find plenty of "missing links" on the internet that seem to trace this evolutionary history -- citations quoting both Bohr and Berra, generally giving precedence to Bohr. This abstract of a scientific paper puts it nicely.
Yogi Berra once observed, apparently paraphrasing Niels Bohr, “Prediction is difficult, especially about the future.” Berra's and Bohr's backgrounds, respectively, in baseball and quantum mechanics, probably prejudiced them, since recent studies show that, at least in geophysics, not everything is as difficult to predict as the path of a knuckle ball or an electron through a double slit.
This quote has clearly taken on a life of its own, and since language is a fickle and restless force, Yogi Berra is probably not the end of the line for these famous words. Who's next? Borat? So far, he hasn't been credited with the quote, but I'll keep checking.


Dr Diablo said...

It's easy to understand how this confusion arose. Bohr was named MVP (Most Valuable Physicist) in 1951, the same year that Yogi won the first of his three MVP (Most Valuable Player) awards. Furthermore, Bohr was left-handed; Berra, although no lefty, swung the stick from the portside. And to top it off, both spoke clumsy English!

Larry Denenberg said...

For further amusement, check out my web page on this topic.

(Links on that page go dead quickly, and I update it only sporadically, but it was absolutely accurate when first published and still gives the idea.)

Madison Guy said...

Larry, thanks for the link. You sure cast a wide net. I'm going to post a reference to this in current LFH so more people see it.

Thursday said...

This is a very enjoyable little commentary on collective attribution and mediocrity. And Dr. Diablo and Larry D. are great clean-up batters.