Maxim: Figures don't lie, but liars do figure (1884 February 29)

Victor Steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Sat Apr 10 11:59:32 UTC 2010

Part II.

Now, for attribution. Plenty of 1890-1910 citations refer to anonymous
or semi-anonymous users.
The Photographic Times. Vol. 27:5. New York: November 1895
Photography and Art. By R. R. Bourland. p. 263
> First, photography is (like all natural phenomena) truthful, as
> figures are truthful. I heard a statistical minister once say,
> "Figures will not lie, /but liars/ will sometimes figure," and just so
> photography does not lie, but liars may photograph as well as figure.

Other semi-anonymous mentions are "a modern philosopher" (who "amended"
the "old proverb").

But not all such sources remain anonymous. The first that got my
attention was James Blaine (of the "Continental Liar" fame).
Proceedings of the 21st Annual Convention of the National Association of
Railway Commissioners. November 16-19, 1909 [published 1910]
Railway Depreciation Accounts. By W. J. Meyers. [The paper was not
delivered at the Convention, but was voted on to be printed in the
Proceedings.] p. 410
> No uniform system of accounts will run itself, and it will doubtless
> remain true that, as late James G. Blaine remarked, "figures will not
> lie, but liars will figure."

Another one is particularly interesting because Carroll D. Wright
figures prominently in it, but not in the provenance of the phrase.
The Public. Vol. 92:324. June 18, 1904. p. 162
> Bolton Hall writes ... : "Upon calling the attention of one author to
> some of these reckless figures he wrote me that he had taken them
> 'from an article in some newspaper' and that he did not know anything
> about them, but that they were good figures, and that the article
> would have a large circulation." By way of comment Mr. Hall adds : In
> my judgment economic reform of any kind and chiefly the single tax is
> strong enough not to need bolstering up by reckless statements and
> statistics, as one would expect from Carroll D. Wright. I ask for the
> publication of this because the evil is a growing and disgusting one."
> We cordially agree with Mr. Hall. One of the irritating phases of
> economic discussion is reckless misuse of statistics. Carroll D.
> Wright and the plutocratic scribblers who copy from him are especially
> culpable. He and they are also especially dangerous, for they usually
> lend some weight of expert authority to what they say. But this vice
> is a bad one for reformers to imitate. It is bad for them personally,
> and it is bad for any cause they champion. Thomas G. Shearman used
> often to quote, "figures won't lie, but liars will figure," and we
> suggest that this species of figuring be left to the experts who
> invented it.

Ironically, the very next issue has another instance with similar text:

The Public. Vol. 92:335. September 3, 1904.
Europe's Municipal Street Cars, and the Economic Lesson They present to
the American People. By Judson Grenell. p. 348
> Glasgow is an excellent place from which to study the street car
> problem. It is probable that the statistics furnished by Glasgow
> officials have been more quoted than from any other municipality, but,
> after all, figures are not everything, and, as has been before
> remarked, while figures do not lie, liars sometimes figure.

Another odd location for the phrase is as an advertising slogan.
The L.A.W. Bulletin and Good Roads. Boston: March 24, 1899. p. 409
> TOMREED says: "Figures don't lie, but liars sometimes figure."
> Circulation liars leave the figuring to the advertiser.


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