Einstein and a Theory of Disinformation

A decade ago, Ivanka Trump offered her Twitter followers a bit of wisdom from one of the world’s favorite geniuses to impress her legions of Twitter followers. “If the facts don’t fit the theory, change the facts. — Albert Einstein”.

There was one problem: Einstein never said that.

Few noticed the tweet, let alone the mistake. That is until Einstein himself returned from the dead to correct her, in a comment on the post.

I know this story because I am Albert Einstein — at least on social media, where, these days, he has more than 20 million followers. As a journalist obsessed with Einstein, I was constantly writing articles about him. My office is filled with Einstein art and Einstein bobbleheads. I even named one of my chickens after him. Eventually, the Albert Einstein Archives at Hebrew University got wind of my enthusiasm and hired me to manage his accounts.

It is a weighty responsibility to speak for Albert Einstein, to protect his legacy and to use my perch to gently nudge others to understand that there is such a thing as universal knowledge and truths, and that they matter. In no small part that’s because the very idea of who a publicly venerated intellectual and expert is has radically changed since his death in 1955.

Einstein and a Theory of Disinformation
Jason Allen Lee

Still, he might recognize the disdain for facts so common today. Long before the word “tweet” was associated with anything other than birds, Einstein’s career was nearly derailed by an early form of the disinformation now ubiquitous on social media. In 1920, skeptical scientists who deemed Einstein a crackpot, and his theory of relativity nonsense, joined forces. Their critiques were often laced with antisemitism. In that era, propaganda spread relatively slowly — one person passing it along to a friend who, in turn, would forward it to someone else, with circulation often limited by geography or language.

Einstein was annoyed by the whole endeavor. Curious about the campaign, he went to an anti-relativity event at the Berlin Philharmonic Hall where he saw that anti-Einstein pamphlets were being handed out. Nobody knew it was him. “He thought that these people were actually not very dangerous because they’re so silly and so poorly informed”, said Matthew Stanley, a historian of science and the philosophy of science at New York University and the author of a book on the fight against the theory of relativity. “He thought it’s all faintly ridiculous”.

By 1933, when the Nazis took power in Germany, two strains of falsehoods smeared Einstein far more publicly, and widely: One asserted (incorrectly) that his relativity theory was outright wrong, a threat, as Mr. Stanley put it, “to the very foundations of human knowledge”. The other doubled down on the antisemitism he had experienced early on; this whisper campaign accused Einstein of having stolen the idea from non-Jewish German and Austrian scientists. Like other prominent Jews, Einstein was targeted as an enemy of the state, and a bounty was rumored to have been placed on his head. But by then he wasn’t in Germany, having left to spend time at Caltech in December 1932. Though he returned to Europe in 1933, he left the continent entirely in October 1933.

Einstein received a welcome reception whenever he arrived on the shores of New York City. Carolyn Abraham, author of “Possessing Genius”, a book about the fate of Einstein’s brain, writes that reporters would be in such a rush to board his ship whenever it docked in the United States that some fell into the harbor. For the final two decades of his life, he was one of the most widely respected public figures in the world. Time magazine named him “Person of the Century” in 1999.

Consensus around central figures — like that of an intellectual genius — has withered since Einstein’s death. No longer do we gather around the television in the evening to watch Walter Cronkite deliver the news, nor do all new parents have a copy of Dr. Spock’s baby manual on their bedside tables; today we are drawn to echo chambers where news is bifurcated and TikTok influencers give us health advice. These days you might find skeptics of the sort Einstein first encountered congregating in the same Facebook group, or on Twitter — but now instead of one lowly local meeting, their fake news spirals at warp speed.

Even outside of conspiracy theorists, there’s a segment of society today that questions the very need for experts when Google’s vast servers can store information for us. We no longer need to memorize the numerical value of pi or the capital of North Dakota.

This sense of our own intellectual infallibility has led to an extreme lack of humility in all sorts of people, from politicians to celebrities to social media influencers. Asked during the run-up to the 2016 presidential election whom he turns to for advice on foreign affairs, Donald Trump cited himself.

Einstein taught that time is relative depending on your frame of reference. Is it possible that truth itself has also become relative?

I often ponder these questions from my home in the mountains of West Virginia, where I wake up each morning, feed my chickens, help my neighbor milk her cows and log into Einstein’s social media accounts to serve as the voice of a long-deceased Nobel Prize laureate. I’m always eager to see what people have commented in response to my tweets and posts because I know that more than a mere scientist, Einstein is a symbol of intelligence to so many across race, religion, age group and educational background. In our fractured political climate, it sometimes seems he may be the last expert we can all agree on.

The internet has given us streaming movies and the ability to stay in touch with far-flung friends, but it has also birthed message boards littered with disinformation, conspiracy theories and bogus science. With Elon Musk’s dismantling of Twitter’s guardrails, those voices are further coursing through the mainstream.

Election deniers and anti-vaxxers can now easily find comrades in their self-created bubbles, magnifying and emboldening their views. They run for office, flaunting a platform of anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism, and sometimes they win.

What would Einstein, who was driven by a lifelong curiosity to discover truths about our universe, think of the disinformation crisis social media has helped stoke? I can’t imagine he would be comfortable with the deluge of false news and incendiary tweets, nor of the elevation of everyone as an expert, a genius in his or her own mind.

I’d like to think Einstein, famous for his bons mots, would post a pithy tweet in response to the science deniers, flat-earthers and Ivanka Trump. “The search for truth and knowledge is one of the finest attributes of man”, Einstein once said. “Though often it is most loudly voiced by those who strive for it the least”.

And, yes, Einstein did actually say that.

Benyamin Cohen is the news director of The Forward and the author of the forthcoming book The Einstein Effect: How the World’s Favorite Genius Got Into Our Cars, Our Bathrooms, and Our Minds.

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