Lies, damned lies, and statistics


Lies, damned lies, and statistics

"Lies, damned lies, and statistics" is part of a phrase attributed to Benjamin Disraeli and popularised in the United States by Mark Twain: "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." The statement refers to the persuasive power of numbers, the use of statistics to bolster weak arguments, and the tendency of people to disparage statistics that do not support their positions.

History

Twain popularised the saying in "Chapters from My Autobiography", published in the "North American Review", No. DCXVIII., July 5, 1907. "Figures often beguile me," he wrote, "particularly when I have the arranging of them myself; in which case the remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: 'There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.'" [cite web | url=http://www.gutenberg.org/files/19987/19987.txt | title=Chapters from My Autobiography | author=Mark Twain | date=1906-09-07 | work=North American Review 186 | publisher=Project Gutenberg | accessdate=2007-05-23]

Alternative attributions include the radical journalist and politician Henry Du Pré Labouchère (1831-1912), and Leonard H. Courtney, who used the phrase in 1895 and two years later became president of the Royal Statistical Society. [A 1896 edition of "Journal of the Royal Statistical Society" duly attributes the phrase to a "wise statesman".] There is some doubt, however, as to what Courtney intended the phrase to mean.cite web | url=http://www.york.ac.uk/depts/maths/histstat/lies.htm | title=Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics | publisher=University of York | accessdate=2007-05-23]

Recently, attention has been drawn to a use of the phrase in 1892 by Cornelia Augusta Hewitt Crosse (1827-1895). In 1894, a doctor by the name of M. Price read a paper to the Philadelphia County Medical Society in which he referred to "the proverbial kinds of falsehoods, 'lies, damned lies, and statistics.'" The fact that he referred to the phrase as "proverbial" seems to imply that it was familiar at that time.

The phrase has also been attributed to (William) Abraham Hewitt (1875-1966) and Commander Holloway Halstead Frost (1889-1935). If the phrase was indeed current by 1892, however, Frost may be eliminated and Hewitt must be very unlikely indeed.

Uses

The phrase has been used in a number of popular expositions, including:
*"Quotes, Damned Quotes ..... some of them to do with statistics" (1985), by John Bibby - an attempt to disentangle the history of this quotation.
*"Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists" (2001), by University of Delaware sociologist Joel Best.
* "How to Lie with Statistics" (1954) by Darrell Huff.
* The essay "The Median Isn't the Message" by Stephen Jay Gould begins by repeating this quote. Gould explains how the statistic that mesothelioma, the form of cancer with which he was diagnosed in 1982, has a "median survival time of eight months" is misleading. [Stephen Jay Gould. [http://cancerguide.org/median_not_msg.html The Median Isn't the Message] ]

Popular culture

* An episode of the TV show "The West Wing" is titled "Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics".
* Nate Silver writes a weekly column for Baseball Prospectus titled "Lies, Damned Lies".
* The video game "Grand Theft Auto IV" has an in-game website called www.liesdamnlies.com.

References


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