Did George Bernard Shaw Write ‘Beware False Knowledge’?

The line struck a chord with hundreds of thousands of Facebook users in August 2021.

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Claim

Playwright George Bernard Shaw once wrote: "Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance."

Rating

Correct Attribution
Correct Attribution
About this rating
Context

The line appeared in a fictional pamphlet written by a character in Shaw's play "Man and Superman."

Origin

In August 2021, an old quotation, attributed to the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, evidently captured the imagination of hundreds of thousands of internet users, after it was posted by Poets, a Facebook community that regularly shares stimulating or inspiring quotations from prominent thinkers and writers.

The meme was very widely shared between Aug. 7 and Aug. 9 and consisted of a photograph of Shaw, along with the following text:

“Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance.” — George Bernard Shaw.

The quotation was authentic and correctly attributed to Shaw. As such, we are issuing a rating of “Correct Attribution.”

It originates in Shaw’s 1903 play “Man and Superman,” subtitled “A comedy and a philosophy.” One of the drama’s protagonists, John Tanner, is the author of a pamphlet entitled “The Revolutionist’s Handbook,” which is enclosed in the text of the play.

One section, called “Maxims for Revolutionists,” contains dozens of short philosophical assertions, statements of principle, and witticisms, on a variety of subjects, including: “Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same”; “Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it”; and “If we could learn from mere experience, the stones of London would be wiser than its wisest men.”

On “education,” Tanner (i.e. Shaw) writes

A learned man is an idler who kills time with study. Beware of his false knowledge: it is more dangerous than ignorance.

Remarkably, the maxim immediately preceding the “false knowledge” section is arguably one of Shaw’s most well-known pieces of writing, and a witticism that has entered common parlance: “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.”

The “false knowledge” maxim is reminiscent of the English poet Alexander Pope’s famous verse, in his 1711 “Essay on Criticism”:

A little learning is a dang’rous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, 
And drinking largely sobers us again.