One of journalism’s oldest clichés is that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.
I had the desired initial reaction to the letter above, rejecting Albert Einstein for an associate professor position: I thought how cool it was that some pompous science professor with a Ph.D. after his name had been so condescendingly dismissive of the greatest modern scientific thinker.
And it was about when I was reading the last line, about Einstein’s thinking being artistic, rather than really about physics, that I wondered whether a Swiss professor would really be writing a German colleague in English. Snopes quickly provided the answer: No.
I’m not going to bother to embarrass the colleague who posted this on social media by naming him. He clearly has enough company that Snopes felt the need to check out the letter’s authenticity.
I recommend reading the debunking by Dan Evon. It’s a nice illustration of the various paths to verification you can use in any story. He found that the hoax was based on an actual fact: The University of Bern did reject Einstein’s initial application for a doctorate in 1907. But everything else was phony: the professor’s name and title, the letterhead, the language, even the image of a modern Einstein stamp.
You can repost interesting stuff like this on social media without checking if you want. And I’m not going to claim that I thoroughly vet every fun thing I’ve posted on social media. But social media, even personal accounts, are also good places for journalists to practice the skepticism that is the core of good journalism.
Especially if something seems too good to be true.