That Mencken quote

It’s tragic when a good quote is ruined by its context.   Versions of the HL Menken quip about simple solutions to complex problems delights those of us who love wicked problems.  A common version of the quote is “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

After thirty years of education I shouldn’t repeat a quote without verifying its source, especially since it is so easy to do so these days.  Only a few clicks revealed that the real quote — or at least one published in 1921 (in the version I saw) in Prejudices: The Second Series goes, less elegantly, like this:

“Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem neat, plausible and wrong.”

But it gets worse. The extravagantly punctuated sentence comes from an essay titled The Divine Afflatus.  The explanation Mencken seeks is for why creative people – composers, artists, literary critics — are only creative in short bursts.  Afflatus means “a sudden rush of creative impulse or inspiration, often attributed to divine influence” but Mencken, as any reader of Wikipedia knows, the word flatulence has the same etymology. You guessed it, his explanation for the vexed problem is indigestion.

For wicked problems there is not even a straight-forward quote.

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