Lies, damned lies, and statistics
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"Lies, damned lies, and statistics" is a phrase describing the persuasive power of numbers, particularly the use of statistics to bolster weak arguments. It is also sometimes colloquially used to doubt statistics used to prove an opponent's point.
The phrase derives from the full sentence, "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."; it was popularized in the United States by Mark Twain and others, who mistakenly attributed it to the British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli. As is now widely discussed, the phrase is not found in any of Disraeli's works and the earliest known appearances were years after his death. The phrase was attributed to an anonymous writer in mid-1891 and later that year to Sir Charles Dilke, but several others have been listed as originators of the quote, including frequent erroneous attribution to Twain himself.
This section relies largely or entirely on a single secondary source, with regard to the secondary sources that are required to support the many primary sources appearing. (November 2019)
Mark Twain popularized the saying in Chapters from My Autobiography, published in the North American Review in 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.'"
Attribution of the saying likely derives from earlier expressions regarding legal witness, where it takes forms relating liars, damned liars, and experts:
- That phrase is found in the science journal, Nature, in November of 1885: "A well-known lawyer, now a judge, once grouped witnesses into three classes: simple liars, damned liars, and experts. He did not mean that the expert uttered things which he knew to be untrue, but that by the emphasis which he laid on certain statements, and by what has been defined as a highly cultivated faculty of evasion, the effect was actually worse than if he had.", where the reference to the judge may be to Baron Bramwell.
- In a meeting of the x Club held on 5 December 1885, T.H. Huxley described the conversation thus: "Talked politics, scandal, and the three classes of witnesses—liars, d—d liars, and experts."
The earliest instance of the phrase that includes the reference to statistics that is found in print dates[according to whom?] to a letter written in the British newspaper National Observer on 8 June 1891, published 13 June 1891, where it ws written: "Sir, —It has been wittily remarked that there are three kinds of falsehood: the first is a 'fib,' the second is a downright lie, and the third and most aggravated is statistics. It is on statistics and on the absence of statistics that the advocate of national pensions relies...".[non-primary source needed][verification needed]
In a question appearing on 10 October of that same year, in Notes and Queries, a pseudonymous contributor signing as "St Swithin" asked for the originator of the expression, "There are three degrees of falsehood: the first is a fib, the second is a lie, and then come statistics", to which a W.D. Gainsford replied (connecting the "statistics" expression with the "expert witness" expression), as originating with a judge at Lincoln’s Inn, further suggesting common usage even at that date. The pseudonym "St Swithin" has been associated with folklorist and author Eliza Gutch.
The American Dialect Society list archives and the summary of the late Professor Peter M. Lee include information from Stephen Goranson that cite research into uses soon after the above. They include Sir Charles Wentworth Dilke (1843–1911), who is reported to have twice used the phrase in October 1891, without attributing it to others (leading Lee to conclude that Dilke was its originator):
- "Sir Charles Dilke... was saying the other day that false statements might be arranged according to their degree under three heads, fibs, lies, and statistics." (The Bristol Mercury and Daily Post, Monday, 19 October).
- "A mass meeting of the slate quarry-men of Festiniog [Wales] was held Wednesday night [14 October] to protest against certain dismissals from one of the quarries...." He [Dilke] observed that the speeches of the Bishops on the disestablishment question reminded him that there were three degrees of untruth—a fib, a lie, and statistics (Laughter)." (The Derby Mercury, Wednesday, 21 October)[verification needed]
Alternative attributions of the expression include, among many others—including Walter Bagehot and Arthur James Balfour—the radical English journalist and politician Henry Du Pré Labouchère, Jervoise Athelstane Baines, and British politician and man of letters Leonard H. Courtney, who used the phrase in 1895 and two years later became president of the Royal Statistical Society. Courtney is quoted by Baines as attributing the phrase to a "wise statesman". The phrase has also been attributed to Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington.
Robert Giffen (1837–1910), Walter Bagehot's assistant editor at The Economist and President of the Statistical Society from 1882-1884, was a further early writer to have connected the expression regarding statistics to the expression regarding experts. Writing in the Economic Journal in 1892, he stated:
An old jest runs to the effect that there are three degrees of comparison among liars. There are liars, there are outrageous liars, and there are scientific experts. This has lately been adapted to throw dirt upon statistics. There are three degrees of comparison, it is said, in lying. There are lies, there are outrageous lies, and there are statistics.
The phrase has been used in a number of popular expositions, including:
- Michael Wheeler's Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics: The Manipulation of Public Opinion in America, (W.W. Norton & Co. 1976; Dell paperback 1978).
- John Bibby's Quotes, Damned Quotes... Some of Them to Do With Statistics (1985), a work that attempts to untangle the history of this quotation.[full citation needed]
- Joel Best's Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists (2001, by a University of Delaware sociologist).
- Darrell Huff's How to Lie with Statistics (1954).[clarification needed][full citation needed]
- Stephen Jay Gould's 1985 essay, "The Median Isn't the Message", first published in Discover Magazine, begins by repeating this quote. Gould explains how the statistic that peritoneal mesothelioma, the form of cancer with which he was diagnosed in July 1982, has a "median survival time of eight months" is misleading given the distribution of that data, and relevant data regarding his individual prognosis.
- Lee, Peter M. (2017). "Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics". University of York. Retrieved 23 May 2007. See also the related root webpage for more information on the author of this authoritative source.
- Velleman, Paul F. (2008). "Truth, Damn Truth, and Statistics". Journal of Statistics Education. 16 (2). Retrieved 4 November 2019.
- Twain, Mark (1906). "Chapters from My Autobiography". North American Review. Project Gutenberg. Retrieved 23 May 2007.
- This full quptation appears not in Prof Lee's summary, but can be found here: Nature Staff (26 November 1885). "The Whole Duty of a Chemist". 33 (839): 73-77 (esp. p. 74). Retrieved 4 November 2019. Cite journal requires
- Quoted in 1900 in Leonard Huxley's letter collection of T.H. Huxley, see Huxley, Leonard, ed. (1900). The Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley. I. London: Macmillan. pp. 255, 257–258.[dead link] The page reference in the Gutenberg transcription of this source was pp. 255, 257–258. See also MacLeod, Roy M. (1970). "The X-club as a Social Network of Science in Late-Victorian England". Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London. 24 (2): 305–322, esp. p. 314.
- Unknown author (13 June 1891). "National Pensions [To the Editor of The National Observer]". London, England. Cite journal requires
- St Swithin (10 October 1891). "Degrees of Falsehood". Notes and Queries. London: George Bell. 7th Ser. (xii): 288.
- Gainsford, W.D. (21 November 1891). "Degrees of Falsehood (7th S. xii. 288)". Notes and Queries. London: George Bell. 7th Ser. (xii): 413.
- See the reference to this individual in Simpson, J. & Roud, S., Editors (2003). A Dictionary of English Folklore. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.[verification needed]
- Post Staff (19 October 1891). "[Unknown title]". The Bristol Mercury and Daily Post. Bristol, England.
Sir Charles Dilke was saying the other day that false statements might be arranged according to their degree under three heads, fibs, lies, and statistics
- Derby Staff (21 October 1891). "Sir Charles Dilke and the Bishops". The Derby Mercury. Derby, England (9223).
- Prof. Lee's report cites and makes passing reference to the appearance of the Derby article, but it does not include the quote per se.
- Gould, E.R.L. (November 1894). "The Temperance Problem: Past and Future". The Forum: 339 et seq. (last paragraph but three from end of article).
Sir Charles Dilke in one sense was right when he said, 'There are three degrees of untruth—a fib, a lie, and statistics.'
- Gaither, Carl C.; Cavazos-Gaither, Alma E. (2012), Gaither's Dictionary of Scientific Quotations, Springer Science & Business Media, p. 2399, ISBN 9781461411147.
- Baines, J. A. (March 1896), "Parliamentary representation in England illustrated by the elections of 1892 and 1895", Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, 59 (1): 38–124, JSTOR 2979754. The quote is on p. 87.
- Harper-Bill, Christopher (1997). Anglo-Norman Studies XIX: Proceedings of the Battle Conference, 1996. Boydell & Brewer Ltd. pp. 307–. ISBN 978-0-85115-707-8.
- Cooper, Glenda (28 March 1998). "How to Succeed by Stating the Obvious". The Independent. Retrieved 4 November 2019.
- Giffen, R. (1892). "[Unknown title]". Economic Journal. 2 (6): 209–238, esp. p. 209. See also Meeting of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, Hobart, Australia, January 1892.
- Goeller, Lawrence N. (4 November 2019). "Essay Summaries: BFB 32. The Median Isn't the Message" (PDF). SJGouldEssays.com. p. 46f. Retrieved 4 November 2019.
- A widely reprinted personal essay that appears in Gould, Stephen Jay (1992). "The Median Isn't the Message". Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. ISBN 9780393308570. Retrieved 4 November 2019. See also Gould, Stephen Jay (2013). "The Median Isn't the Message". AMA Journal of Ethics [Virtual Mentor]. Chicago, IL: American Medical Association. doi:10.1001/virtualmentor.2013.15.1.mnar1-1301. Retrieved 4 November 2019. or Gould, Stephen Jay (31 May 2002). "The Median Isn't the Message". CancerGuide.org. Retrieved 4 November 2019.
- "The West Wing: Season 1, Episode 21 : Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics". IMDb.com. Retrieved 31 January 2014.
- Lee, Peter M. (2017) "Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics" at the support material of the academic web pages of the late Prof Lee, which authoritatively and thoroughly review—including through use of extensive quotations and references—the subject and evidence touched upon in this article.
- Reinhart, Alex. Statistics Done Wrong: The Woefully Complete Guide. No Starch Press. p. 176. ISBN 978-1593276201.