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

Garson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Sun Apr 11 02:16:52 UTC 2010

Many thanks to Wilson Gray for his response, and great thanks to
Victor Steinbok for his productive investigation and extensive

Wilson Gray wrote:
> OTOH, if anyone had asked me at that time who had originated it, I
> would have guessed, "Mark Twain."

Victor Steinbok wrote:
> This is one reason why some late 20th century quotation collectors
> try to pin the phrase on Mark Twain.

The powerful attraction exhibited by the name Mark Twain as a
quotation magnet did result in several attributions for this maxim.
The earliest I could locate was dated 1913.

Citation: 1913 October 2, Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, The
Perils of Statistics, Page 509, Vol. CLXIX, No. 14, Massachusetts
Medical Society, Boston, Massachusetts.

The temptation is irresistible, - nay is so subtle that it is not
recognized as a temptation, - to use statistics to prove whatever
point one wishes to establish. Indeed their peril is so great as to
make one instinctively suspicious of any conclusion reached by their
means, and almost to justify that other famous saying of Mark Twain,
that "Figures can't lie, but liars will figure."

Thanks to Victor for finding the 1909 attribution of the quote to
James G. Blaine.

I have a question for Victor and other readers about the 1904 locution
that mentions Thomas G. Shearman. Here is the relevant text:

Citation: 1904 June 18, The Public, Page 162, Number 324, Louis F.
Post, Chicago, Illinois.

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.

Since the word "quote" is used instead of "say" I think that the
person writing this citation does not believe that Shearman originated
the quotation. The writer believes that Shearman is repeating a
pre-existing maxim. Do others agree with this interpretation?

I apologize for an ambiguity in my discussion of the two versions of
the speech by Carroll D. Wright. I placed the following phrase
immediately before the text of the two cites from the two versions:
"Excerpt from the opening remarks of Carroll D. Wright:" I used that
phrase to identify the speaker and to indicate that the text I was
about to present in the post was only an excerpt from a larger text
labeled as opening remarks. I did not mean to imply that the full text
in the underlying volumes that I was quoting from was an excerpt.

Which version of Wright's speech displays the greatest fidelity? I
think the version in the Joint Documents of the State of Michigan is
more accurate than the version in the publication from the American
Statistical Association (ASA). The ASA document states that it is
giving a "condensed report" and: "Later on the proceedings in full
will be published." Based on Victor's comment I think that we agree in
assessing which document is more accurate. Here is part of the text
that prefaces the opening remarks in the ASA document:

Citation: June 1889, American Statistical Association, Convention of
Commissioners of Bureaus of Statistics of Labor, Page 283, Vol. 1, No.
6, Publication of the American Statistical Association.  (Google Books
full view)

Through the courtesy of Hon. Horace G. Wadlin the following condensed
report of the proceedings of the recent Convention of the
Commissioners of Bureaus of Labor Statistics has been furnished to the
American Statistical Association. Later on the proceedings in full
will be published by the Convention and until the limited edition is
exhausted may be obtained upon request of either of the Bureaus.

Thanks again for your time,

Garson O'Toole

The American Dialect Society -

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