Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

This quote is usually attributed to Mark Twain, and in fact, he did use it in his biography, but he himself quoted it. Twain’s actual words were: ‘The remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics”.’ But Disraeli’s biographer claims that the renowned statesman never used that particular phrase.

Some people postulate that Twain heard the phrase from Leonard Henry Courtney, a British economist and politician who said, in an August 1895 speech in New York, ‘After all, facts are facts, and although we may quote one to another with a chuckle the words of the Wise Statesman, “Lies – damn lies – and statistics,” still there are some easy figures the simplest must understand, and the astutest cannot wriggle out of.’ Courtney didn’t attribute the saying to Disraeli, and in fact, “wise statesman” might not even refer to a specific person, but a way of attributing the phrase to . . . whoever.

The earliest instance of the phrase found in print is from a letter that seems to indicate the saying was in common usage before Courtney’s speech, and was so old no one knew anymore who said it.  The letter dated June 8, 1891 and published June 13, 1891 states: “Sir,–It has been wittily remarked that there are three kinds of falsehood: the first is a ‘fib,’ the second is a downright lie, and the third and most aggravated is statistics. It is on statistics and on the absence of statistics that the advocate of national pensions relies…..”

I don’t suppose it matters who said “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” I don’t suppose it matters if there are, in fact, three kinds of lies, though I do know statistics can’t truly be a kind of lie. They are simply bits of data that have been compiled from a large sampling. People, of course, use these bits of data to bolster whatever truth or falsehood they happen to be peddling, and they are able to do this because of the very nature of statistics. For example, although everyone in the United States knows how abnormal this winter is, statistics show that on average, this is simply a normal winter — the warmth and dryness of the west balances the cold and snow of the east, giving us the lie of a normal winter.

Lucky for me, I happen to be on the warm, dry end of the “lie.” For all of you who are living on the opposite side of the land, be safe and try to stay warm.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Blog Posts I (Sort of) Wish I Hadn’t Written

It’s easy to forget how far-reaching the internet is. I tend to think I am holding court here in my own corner of the blogosphere, but the truth is, anyone who happens to search for the right term (or wrong term) can land on this blog.

Mostly people get here by using various search terms having to do with writing or grief, but occasionally I post an article that gets hits of a sort I never intended. For example, three years ago, I posted a transcript of a conversation I had with my sister “Was It Bizarre Reading a S** Scene Written By Your Sister?” A couple months later, when I realized that the article was attracting a huge number of hits from people who wanted to have s** with their sisters — 1,954 hits as of right now — I posted the list of the search terms people had used to get to here: S** With Sister Tips. Um…Yeah. That list has garnered 16,790 hits in the past three years. Two days later, I wrote S** With Sister Tips — Writing Tips, That Is. It was my idea of humor — if they wanted tips for having incestuous s**, I’d give them writing tips, sort of as a gentle chastisement. The article itself wasn’t humorous. It was a very pragmatic look at the pitfalls of writing about sibling s**. That article has garnered 9,272 hits.

The whole situation ceased to amuse me years ago, and now makes me rather uneasy. (Which is why the asterisks — I’m trying to keep the search engines from finding yet another s** with sister article.

The other post that makes me a bit uneasy because of all the attention is How Many Books Are Going to be Published in 2012? (Prepare for a Shock). I’d only written the article as a way of trying to make sense of the current book climate and to show the meteoric increase in the number of books available, not to establish myself as any authority on the subject.

Although the article was posted only five months ago, it has had 1,536 hits as of right now. I don’t mind that, of course, but I do mind being touted either as an authority or as an idiot. Several sites that offer book publicity services use that article as a reason for authors to sign up for expensive promotions, and others write scathing articles calling me an idiot who shouldn’t be allowed around statistics since I misuse them.

The truth is, there is no way to extrapolate from the information I gave as to how many books will be published in 2012. Bowker estimates they will issue 15,000,000 ISBNs this year, as compared to 407,000 in 2007, but the truth is, many people use several ISBNs for the same book since some retailers want separate ISBNs for ebooks and print books. And many self-publishers don’t use ISBNs at all, especially if they are only going to sell on Amazon and B&N since both companies will issue their own product numbers. So there could be 5,000,000 books published, or 15,000,000, or even 150,000,000.

This was supposed to be a cautionary tale about being careful what you post since it could haunt you for many years, but it in the end, telling your truth of the moment, no matter what the fallout, is the important thing. It does sadden me, though, that some of my best writing — inspirational and thoughtful posts — sink into oblivion, while these posts get many views.