Sunday, November 4, 2012

Lies/Fibs, Damned Lies, and Experts/Statistics

Perhaps the most famous quotation about statistics is the most annoying—the one that Mark Twain mistakenly attributed to Benjamin Disraeli: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” This tripartite classification of mendacity is quoted with great frequency (I won’t give a statistic) by writers criticizing some dubious statistic or other. For example, one self-styled “critical thinker” uncritically accepts the 19th-century British Prime Minister as the originator of the aphorism. [1]

According to Yale Law Librarian Fred Shapiro, “the first known use of the famous words ‘lies, damned lies, and statistics’ was quoted in the Leeds Mercury, June 29, 1892. The source was a speech by Arthur Balfour—yet another prime minister.” [2] But comparable words, often with “experts” in place of “statistics” appeared in print before then, and Balfour referred to it as “an old saying.” [3] The results of more sleuthing can be found on a webpage maintained at the University of York’s mathematics department’s website.


  1. Jim Baird, How Statistics Can Lie: Are You Impressed by Remarkable Claims in Product Ads? Here's Why You Might Want to Be Skeptical, 
  2. Fred R. Shapiro, You Can Quote Them, Yale Alumni Mag., Sept.-Oct. 2012, at 56.
  3. Peter M Lee (?), Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics, July 19, 2012,

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