Lies, damned lies, and statistics

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 term was popularised in the United States by Mark Twain (among others), who attributed it to the 19th-century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (1804–1881): “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” However, the phrase is not found in any of Disraeli’s works and the earliest known appearances were years after his death. Other coiners have therefore been proposed, and the phrase is often attributed to Twain himself.

History

Mark Twain popularized the saying in “Chapters from My Autobiography”, published in the North American Review in 1906. “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.'”[1]

Alternative attributions include, among many others (for example Walter Bagehot and Arthur James Balfour) the radical English journalist and politician Henry Du Pré Labouchère(1831–1912), 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.[2]Courtney referred to a future statesman, not a past one.[3]

The earliest instance of the phrase found in print dates to a letter written in the British newspaper National Observer on June 8, 1891, published June 13, 1891, p. 93(-94): NATIONAL PENSIONS [To the Editor of The National Observer] London, 8 June 1891 “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…..” Later, in October 1891, as a query in Notes and Queries, the pseudonymous questioner, signing as “St Swithin”, asked for the originator of the phrase, indicating common usage even at that date.[3] The pseudonym has been attributed to Eliza Gutch.[4]

The American Dialect Society list archives includes numerous posts by Stephen Goranson that cite research into uses soon after the above. . They include:

  • Sir Charles Wentworth Dilke (1843–1911) is reported twice in October 1891 to have used the phrase, without attributing it to others:
“Sir Charles Dilke [1843-1911] 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, October 19, 1891
The Derby Mercury (Derby, England), October 21, 1891; Issue 9223 “Sir Charles Dilke and the Bishops” “A mass meeting of the slate quarry-men of Festiniog [Ffestiniog, Wales] was held Wednesday night [Oct. 14] 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 phrase, as noted by Robert Giffen in 1892, was a variation on a phrase about three types of unreliable witnesses, a liar, a damned liar, and an expert (Economic Journal 2 (6) (1892), 209-238, first paragraph; the paper was previously read at a meeting of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science at Hobart in January 1892). 1892 Jan talk, June pub Robert Giffen (1837–1910, Walter Bagehot’s assistant editor at The Economist 1868ff; 1882-4 President of the Statistical Society): “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.”
  • That phrase can be found in Nature in 1885, page 74 November 26, 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 …”
  • A minute of the X Club meeting held on 5 December 1885, recorded by Thomas Henry Huxley, noted “Talked politics, scandal, and the three classes of witnesses—liars, d—d liars, and experts.” Quoted in 1900 in Leonard Huxley‘s The Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley.[5][6]
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