Why do we say "Lies, damn lies, and statistics"?

Well-Known Expressions

Lies, damn lies, and statistics

Meaning:

This expression is generally used in order to cast doubt on statistics produced by somebody a person does not agree with, or to describe how statistics can be manipulated to support almost any position.

Background:

The expression, "there are three types of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics" is often attributed to Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) who was Prime Minster of Great Britain from 1874 to 1880, because Mark Twain ascribed it to him in a 1907 article in the North American Review: "Figures often beguile me...particularly when I have the arranging of them myself; in which case the remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: 'There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.'"

The Phrase Finder offers that it is likely that Twain believed the expression originated from Disraeli because of an 1895 speech by British politician Leonard H. Courtney in New York in which he said, "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."

However, there is no evidence that Courtney was referring to Disraeli.

According to The Phrase Finder, the earliest known citation of the expression in close to its current form is by Arthur James Balfour, 1st Earl of Balfour, as quoted in the Manchester Guardian, 29th June 1892: "there are three kinds of falsehoods, lies, damned lies and statistics."

Arthur James Balfour, 1st Earl of Balfour (1848-1930), was a British statesman who had held many important government roles by the time of Leonard H. Courtney's 1895 speech, so it seems plausible that the statesman Courtney had in mind was Balfour.

However, it seems unlikely that the expression originated with him because, according to Wikipedia, an earlier instance of the phrase (or something close to it) is found four years earlier in a letter to the editor of the British newspaper National Observer, in June 1891:

"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…"

The opening reference implies that the expression is established at the time this letter was written; and, from other sources, it is clear that at least one variation on the expression (which probably preceded "lies") was in use at the time about three types of unreliable witnesses: a liar, a damned liar, and an expert.

There are many sources of information on this topic that go into far more detail than we can do here, and with greater authority, including The Phrase Finder, Wikipedia and a seemingly unattributed post from the University of York.

Alphabetical list of expressions

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