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

Victor Steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Sat Apr 10 11:59:36 UTC 2010

Part III.

I also wanted to include a couple of interesting variants that might not
otherwise see the light of day. None of these have any pretense to
precedent. All are between 1890 and 1910. I am only citing the links and
the text--the rest of the bibliographic information can be obtained from
those, if anyone is interested. [Note that the links do not necessarily
represent the original search, but rather refinements once the locations
had been found.] (1909)
> Still, it might be that when it came to the more complicated form of
> contract, that I would be in the position of the man who seemed
> cornered on the statement that figures could not lie, but who replied
> that liars could figure. (1899)
> But when figures refuse to lie, then liars begin to figure, and make
> all kinds of puzzles and riddles to deceive you. (1896)
> While "liars may figure, figures won't lie," and the results recorded
> stand well in evidence of what the organizations of labor have been
> able to accomplish. (1896)
> And when the usual disappointment came, Johnson, the baritone, would
> remark that if figures didn't lie, liars did figure. (1896)
> Those who say what we so often hear, that statistics are misleading,
> mistake the passive for the active, like the belated and elated
> citizen who at midnight damns the keyhole for an artful dodger.
> Delusion is wrought, not by figures that lie, but by liars that figure.


Finally, while searching for connections for the 1852 quotation, I found
another source for a different phrase that's been a frequent ADS-L
guest. Earlier (2007) Stephen Gorason mentioned, in passing, that there
was a 1896 attribution of the line "lies, damned lies, and statistics"
to Leonard Courtney.
> Leonard Henry Courtney (1832-1918) in 1895 addressed a group in
> Saratoga Springs NY about results in a future, fictitious vote without
> proportional representation. Whether Courtney, a Liberal, in this case
> expected his NY audience to think of Disraeli, a Conservative, as the
> "Wise Statesman" may be questioned. Courtney is one of the many
> attributions claimed (e.g. by J.A. Baines in 1896) for the quotation.

Here's the direct quotation from a yet earlier source.
> After all, facts are facts, and although we may quote one to another
> with a chuckle the words of the Wise Statesman, "Lies - damned lies -
> and statistics," still there are some easy figures the simplest must
> understand, and the astutest cannot wriggle out of. ~Leonard Courtney,
> speech, August 1895, New York, "To My Fellow-Disciples at Saratoga
> Springs," printed in The National Review (London, 1895)

Here's the link to the National Review for the Courtney citation. It is,
in fact the entire speech and it's in the September 1895 issue (despite
GB proclamation that it's 1896). I also checked the 1896 citation and it
only has the isolated quote.

The same source page (QuoteGarden) also cites Mark Twain as attributing
the same punchline to Disraeli in 1904--which is, of course, from his
autobiography that was published in 1906, so there is some question as
to how well the "quotation verifier" who runs that site really verifies
the sources. I suppose, it is possible that Twain used the same comment
earlier--never throw away a good punchline.

I also see a connection between the two phrases ("figures" and "damned
lies"). If my theory laid out above is correct, they have similar
origin, not just in terms of their coinage, but in the /necessity/ of
such coinage. The fact that the "damned lies" phrase is actually
preceded by a similar phrase about three kinds of "liars" and that this
latter phrase is co-terminal with the other "liar" phrase only serves to
solidify my point.

And add one more to the collection--"I can prove anything by
statistics--except the truth." George Canning Of course, this one does
not follow the pattern, as it precedes the other two by good 60 years.


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