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

ADSGarson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Mon Jan 18 19:18:09 UTC 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:

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.

Feedback welcome,
Garson O'Toole

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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