[Ads-l] Modern Proverb: If you torture the data long enough, it will confess

ADSGarson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Mon Jan 18 14:18:09 EST 2021


U.S. cartoonist Scott McCloud tweeted an inquiry about the adage in
the subject line which was brought to my attention by another twitter
user. I came across two common variants of the saying:

If you torture the data long enough, it will confess.
If you torture the data enough, nature will always confess.

Here is a link to the Quote Investigator article:
https://quoteinvestigator.com/2021/01/18/confess/

The earliest match I located appeared in an address delivered on April
22, 1971 by British mathematician I. J. Good (Irving John Good) at a
meeting of the Institute of Mathematical Statistics. Good’s lecture
was printed in “The American Statistician” in June 1972.

[Begin excerpt]
As Ronald Coase says “If you torture the data long enough, it will
confess.” When data is tortured, it is useful when possible to reserve
some of the sample for testing a hypothesis after it is formulated
because there is not yet any satisfactory logic for using the whole of
the sample.
[End excerpt]

Interestingly, Coase stated that he employed the phrase with "nature"
in the 1960s. See the citations in the QI article.

Barry Popik has a helpful discussion with evidence beginning in 1977.
https://www.barrypopik.com/index.php/new_york_city/entry/if_you_torture_the_data_long_enough_it_will_confess

Feedback welcome,
Garson O'Toole

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