No, It’s Not Atlantis!

I don’t envy headline writers who have to come up with catchy phrases every day to get people to read articles in their publications. So it’s understandable that some of them mentioned Atlantis when reporting about the recent discovery of granite from a sunken portion of an ancient continent off the coast of Brazil. Talk about Atlantis or UFOs or a couple of other mysterious subjects always gets people’s attention. According to legend, Atlantis was an island located beyond the Straits of Gibraltar whose civilization was destroyed in a day when it sank into the sea some 10,000 years ago.

Lest anybody gets confused, that recently discovered sunken land has nothing whatsoever to do with the legend of Atlantis. If the real Atlantis had a highly developed civilization then that place can’t be it if no human being ever saw it above sea level, let alone ever lived there. And we know that no human ever lived there if it sunk nearly 50 million years ago and thus is almost as old as the last dinosaurs. Modern man (Homo sapiens) only evolved about 200,000 years ago, tens of millions of years after the recently discovered piece of land had sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic ocean. Whatever real events (if any) may have inspired the legend of Atlantis, they certainly did not occur there.

So what is that piece of former land mass? When the ancient supercontinent of Pangea broke apart and South America separated from Africa, along with India, Madagascar, Antarctica and Australia, not everything from it made it into the present day parts of a jigsaw puzzle that still fit together. Small bits broke off along the fault lines and gradually disappeared into the ocean.

A similar find to the current one was reported in February, from an even older breakup of an ancient continent that left another continental fragment at the bottom of the Indian Ocean.

“Trau keiner Statistik…”

Today, in online chat with an American friend that touched on website statistics I posted the line:

“Never trust any statistics that you didn’t forge yourself.”

He replied that he liked the quote, which suggested to me that he hadn’t heard it before. This particular one liner frequently pops up in discussions of published numbers in Germany, especially if one disagrees with what they appear to show. You might call it the German equivalent of “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Its two common variants are “Ich traue keiner Statistik die ich nicht selbst gefaelscht habe” (I don’t trust any statistics that I didn’t forge myself) or as advice: “Traue keiner Statistik die du nicht selbst gefaelscht hast” (Don’t trust any statistics that you didn’t forge yourself).

I vaguely remembered that this line was usually attributed to Winston Churchill and found my friend’s reaction odd, because if this was a Churchill quote, it would be more likely to be known amongst English speakers than in Germany. A quick Google search confirmed my suspicions because hits centered on Germany, making it unlikely the quote was indeed from Churchill. The German-centric hits were no coincidence, because as it turns out the “quote” was a product of Nazi propaganda that has managed to survive the fall of the Reich by more than six decades.

According to research conducted by a member of the Baden-Wuerttemberg State Office of Statistics a couple of years ago, there is no verifiable source for the supposed “quote”. The Times of London had never heard of it. What’s more, it dovetails nicely with WWII Nazi propaganda that accused Churchill of exaggerating Allied successes and minimizing British losses (i.e. forging numbers). It does not really fit Churchill, because he was not known as a general skeptic on statistics, though he was suspicious of German claims (and for good reasons). The fake “quote” combines these two themes, skepticism of his opponents’ statistics and accusations of being a liar that the Nazis liked to smear him with.

Maybe better advice would be: “Don’t trust any quote that you didn’t forge yourself.” 😉