Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

This quote is usually attributed to Mark Twain, and in fact, he did use it in his biography, but he himself quoted it. Twain’s actual words were: ‘The remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics”.’ But Disraeli’s biographer claims that the renowned statesman never used that particular phrase.

Some people postulate that Twain heard the phrase from Leonard Henry Courtney, a British economist and politician who said, in an August 1895 speech in New York, ‘After all, facts are facts, and although we may quote one to another with a chuckle the words of the Wise Statesman, “Lies – damn lies – and statistics,” still there are some easy figures the simplest must understand, and the astutest cannot wriggle out of.’ Courtney didn’t attribute the saying to Disraeli, and in fact, “wise statesman” might not even refer to a specific person, but a way of attributing the phrase to . . . whoever.

The earliest instance of the phrase found in print is from a letter that seems to indicate the saying was in common usage before Courtney’s speech, and was so old no one knew anymore who said it.  The letter dated June 8, 1891 and published June 13, 1891 states: “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…..”

I don’t suppose it matters who said “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” I don’t suppose it matters if there are, in fact, three kinds of lies, though I do know statistics can’t truly be a kind of lie. They are simply bits of data that have been compiled from a large sampling. People, of course, use these bits of data to bolster whatever truth or falsehood they happen to be peddling, and they are able to do this because of the very nature of statistics. For example, although everyone in the United States knows how abnormal this winter is, statistics show that on average, this is simply a normal winter — the warmth and dryness of the west balances the cold and snow of the east, giving us the lie of a normal winter.

Lucky for me, I happen to be on the warm, dry end of the “lie.” For all of you who are living on the opposite side of the land, be safe and try to stay warm.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

One Response to “Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics”

  1. mickeyhoffman Says:

    A lot of the stats people use come from tiny samples which make them invalid. Then, as you say, it’s the way numbers are interpreted that really makes the difference. Mark Twain was a cynic and I’m with him. Believe nothing unless there’s a lot of supporting evidence which is founded on fact, not opinion. And even then, I’m so stubborn, it takes a lot to convince me of anything.


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