False attribution

False attribution can refer to:

  • Misattribution in general, when a quotation or work is accidentally, traditionally, or based on bad information attributed to the wrong person or group
  • A specific fallacy where an advocate appeals to an irrelevant, unqualified, unidentified, biased, or fabricated source in support of an argument.[1]


The fallacy of false attribution is a type of appeal to authority, where the proponent either hides or puffs up the credentials or credibility of the source to enhance an argument.

A version of false attribution is where a fraudulent advocate goes so far as to fabricate a source, such as creating a fake website, in order to support a claim. For example, the “Levitt Institute” was a fake organisation created in 2009 solely for the purposes of (successfully) fooling the Australian media into reporting that Sydney was Australia’s most naive city.[2]

A contextomy (taking a quote out of context) is a type of false attribution.[3]

Incorrect identification of source

Another particular case of misattribution is the Matthew effect: a quotation is often attributed to someone more famous than the real author. This leads the quotation to be more famous, but the real author to be forgotten (see also: obliteration by incorporation).[4]

In Jewish biblical studies, an entire group of falsely-attributed books is known as the pseudepigrapha.

Such misattributions may originate as a sort of fallacious argument, if use of the quotation is meant to be persuasive, and attachment to a more famous person (whether intentionally or through misremembering) would lend it more authority.

See also


  1. Humbug! The skeptic’s field guide to spotting fallacies in thinking, a textbook on fallacies. "False Attribution": p. 56.
  2. Deception Detection Deficiency, Media Watch.
  3. Matthew S. McGlone; Quoted Out of Context: Contextomy and Its Consequences, Journal of Communication, Volume 55, Issue 2, 1 June 2005, Pages 330–346, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1460-2466.2005.tb02675.x
  4. Mermin, N. David (2004). "Could Feynman Have Said This?". Physics Today. 57: 10. doi:10.1063/1.1768652.

Further reading

  • Garson O'Toole (2017). Hemingway Didn't Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations. Little A. ISBN 978-1503933408.
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