Sunday 30 January 2022

Lies, Damned Lies, and Something About Statistics


In a long passed discussion about quotations on the AP Statistics news group the quotation, “There are three kinds of lies; lies, damned lies, and statistics.” came up. The quote is usually attributed to either Mark Twain or Disraili, and several nice notes regarding the veracity of the quote, and its origin, were contributed. Here are snips and direct quotes from the ones that seemed most interesting…

Chris Olsen waded in with this:
“I was reading something or other recently -- I don't remember what it was, but do remember it was a statistician writing -- and he alluded to this quote. In the following the [] are my interjections. What the statistician said was that Disraeli was arguing for or against [I kind of think against] the repeal of the Corn Laws in the English Parliament [possibly in 1846]. An individual [Robert Peel?] on the other side pointed out some sort of statistic in arguing the other side of the issue, and that is when Disraeli is alleged to have made the damn remark.“

David Bee added a source for a slightly different version of the quote:
“…on Page 242 of their compilation 'Statistically Speaking' (1996), compilers CC Gaither and AE Cavazos-Gaither have the following, attributed to Disraeli in George Seldes's 1960 book The Great Quotations: There are lies, damn lies, and church statistics.”

Rex Bogg’s contributed a link to HYPERLINK "" Quote-Unquote , a web site with the radio articles of Nigel Rees. About the topic in question, he writes:
“Although sometimes attributed to Mark Twain – because it appears in his posthumously-published Autobiography (1924) – this should more properly be ascribed to Disraeli, as indeed Twain took trouble to do: his exact words being, ‘The remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics”.’
On the other hand, the remark remains untraced among Disraeli’s writings and sayings and Lord Blake, Disraeli’s biographer, does not know of any evidence that Disraeli said any such thing and thinks it most unlikely that he did. So why did Twain make the attribution? A suggestion: Leonard Henry Courtney, the British economist and politician (1832-1918), later Lord Courtney, gave a speech on proportional representation ‘To My Fellow-Disciples at Saratoga Springs’, New York, in August 1895, in which this sentence appeared: ‘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.’
It is conceivable that Twain acquired the quotation from this - and also its veiled attribution to a ‘Wise Statesman’, whom he understood to be Disraeli. The speech was reproduced in the (British) National Review, No. 26, in the same year. Subsequently, Courtney’s comment was reproduced in an article by J.A. Baines on ‘Parliamentary Representation in England illustrated by the Elections of 1892 and 1895’ in the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, No. 59 (1896): ‘We may quote to one another with a chuckle the words of the Wise Statesman, lies, damn lies, and statistics, still there are some easy figures which the simplest must understand but the astutest cannot wriggle out of.’ It would be a reasonable assumption that Courtney was referring to Disraeli by his use of the phrase ‘Wise Statesman’, though the context in which the phrase is used is somewhat complicated. For some reason, at this time, allusions to rather than outright quotations of Disraeli were the order of the day (he had died in 1881). Compare the fact that the remark to an author who had sent Disraeli an unsolicited manuscript – ‘Many thanks; I shall lose no time in reading it’ – is merely ascribed to ‘an eminent man on this side of the Atlantic’ by G.W.E. Russell in Collections and Recollections, Chap. 31 (1898).
Comparable sayings: Dr Halliday Sutherland’s autobiographical A Time to Keep (1934) has an account of Sir Henry Littlejohn, ‘Police Surgeon, Medical Officer of Health and Professor of Forensic Medicine at the University [Edinburgh] ... Sir Henry’s class at 9 a.m. was always crowded, and he told us of the murder trials of the last century in which he had played his part. It was Lord Young [judge] who said, “There are four classes of witnesses - liars, damned liars, expert witnesses, and Sir Henry Littlejohn”.’ Lies, Damn Lies, and Some Exclusives was the title of a book about British newspapers (1984) by Henry Porter. ‘There are lies, damned lies ... and Fianna Fáil party political broadcasts’ - Barry Desmond MEP, (Irish) Labour Party director of elections, in November 1992.

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