People Use Statistics as a Drunk Uses a Lamppost — For Support Rather Than Illumination

Andrew Lang? A. E. Housman? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

stats01Dear Quote Investigator: Too many people use statistics selectively to provide evidence for only one side of a multi-sided contentious topic. The following saying humorously illustrates this propensity:

Some individuals use statistics as a drunk man uses lamp-posts — for support rather than for illumination.

Do you know who coined this colorful simile?

Quote Investigator: An intriguing precursor of this saying was written in 1903 by A. E. Housman who was a famous poet and classicist. Housman was unhappy with the poor quality of the scholarship of some of his colleagues. He employed an analogy that compared inept critics with drunkards beneath lampposts. In the following passage the abbreviation MS was used for manuscript: 1

And critics who treat MS evidence as rational men treat all evidence, and test it by reason and by the knowledge which they have acquired, these are blamed for rashness and capriciousness by gentlemen who use MSS as drunkards use lamp-posts,—not to light them on their way but to dissimulate their instability.”

The phrase “to dissimulate their instability” within the simile above meant to hide a shaky balance for the drunkard and to disguise inadequate reasoning for the scholar. There are several points of similarity between the statement above and the saying under investigation. Yet, Housman did refer to manuscripts instead of statistics.

The earliest close match located by QI was published in January 1937, and the words were attributed to Andrew Lang who was a Scottish novelist and folklorist who died years earlier in 1912. Indeed, Lang has usually been given credit for this remark about statistics. The memoir “Lancer at Large” by Francis Yeats-Brown was published in the first month of 1937, and the Lang ascription was printed in a footnote: 2

I shall try not to use statistics as a drunken man uses lamp-posts, for support rather than for illumination; [Footnote 1] and I shall try not to let my pen stray too far from the tethers of sanity of things seen…

[Footnote 1] Andrew Lang’s agreeable analogy.

An earlier work by Yeats-Brown titled “The Lives of a Bengal Lancer” had catapulted the memoirist to fame. It is not certain that the “Andrew Lang” mentioned by Yeats-Brown corresponded to the well-known folklorist, but no alternative Lang’s have been put forward, and the name “Lang” occurred only once in the text.

Another book containing the saying was released in 1937 though the precise month of publication is uncertain. The preface of “The Silent Social Revolution: An Account of the Expansion of Public Education in England and Wales 1895-1935″ by G. A. N. Lowndes included an instance which was credited to Lang and extravagantly labeled immortal: 3

For blue books are particularly prone to use their statistics not as a living record of social progress but (to quote a deservedly immortal phrase of Andrew Lang) ‘as a drunken man uses lamp-posts–for support rather than for illumination’.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In April 1937 the mass-circulation periodical “The Reader’s Digest” printed the expression ascribed to Lang in a section called “Toward a More Picturesque Speech”. This magazine was an important locus for propagating quotations: 4

He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lampposts – for support rather than for illumination (Andrew Lang)

On April 20, 1937 the politician Captain McEwen used the saying while speaking in the Parliament of Great Britain as recorded in the Hansard. No attribution was given: 5

Their case, as has been amply proved by these recapitulations to-night, is a very lame case indeed. The few new facts which the Debate has elicited from that side of the House have been used by them, as was said in another connection, as a drunken man uses lampposts—more for support than for illumination.

In 1937 the adage was printed in a textbook for high-school and college students titled “Essentials of Debate” by John R. Pelsma. The preface was dated July 1, 1937 which placed a lower-bound on the release date. Once again Lang received credit: 6

“Some people,” said Andrew Lang, “use statistics as a drunk man uses lamp-posts—for support rather than for illumination.”

In August 1937 “The Atlantic Monthly” published the article “A Nation of Onlookers” by John R. Tunis, and the author included an instance of the saying: 7

They are facts and figures. I do not rely on them, as Andrew Lang said a ‘drunken man relies on a lamp post, for support rather than illumination,’ but to show and illuminate a situation which has been much discussed, but about which little accurate information has ever been published.

In September 1937 “The Education Digest” printed the article “An Uncultivated Field” by Thomas H. Briggs which included the expression: 8

There is the type of worker who, in the words of Andrew Lang, “uses statistics as a drunken man uses lampposts—for support rather than illumination.”

A note at the end of the essay in “The Education Digest” stated that it had originally appeared in the May 1937 issue of “Teachers College Record”. Hence, the quotation probably appeared in this earlier issue; however, QI has not yet verified the text on paper.

In November 1938 a columnist in a Rockford, Illinois newspaper credited an instance of the adage to a Scotchman: 9

All of which serves to remind us of the Scotchman’s remark that many use statistics as a drunken man a lamp post: more for support than for illumination.

In 1946 Lord Cherwell speaking in the House of Lords in the Parliament of Great Britain delivered a statement that combined the sayings connected to Housman and Lang: 10

Some Ministers, I know, are not trusted with figures by their officials. I believe it was said of one: “He uses figures as a drunkard uses lampposts, not to light him the way but to conceal his own instability.”

In 1948 the influential newspaper commentator Walter Winchell printed the saying in his column: 11

We don’t recall the author’s name, but the poll fiasco makes it timely: “Some men use statistics as a drunken man uses lampposts. For support rather than illumination.”

In 1963 the following version was published in a New Orleans, Louisiana newspaper: 12

Garrison says that Giarrusso has “demonstrated skill” with statistics. “I am afraid, however, that he leans upon his statistics as a drunk leans upon a lamppost—more for support than for illumination,” Garrison stated.

In conclusion, A. E. Housman can be credited with the statement he wrote in 1903. QI hypothesizes that the expression attributed to Andrew Lang evolved from the quotation by Housman. Lang may have spoken or written the words credited to him, but the association is problematic because the evidence was not direct, and it first appeared twenty-five years after the death of Lang. The quotation probably evolved because of imperfect human memory, and the assignment to Lang may have been an error. Perhaps future research will clarify this situation.

Addendum: QI is working to verify a citation for a variant that apparently was used by Lord Tweedsmuir, the Governor-General of Canada, in an address delivered on March 29, 1937 at the University of Toronto. The humorous remark was ascribed to A. E. Housman but included the distinctive word “illumination”: 13

I remember that the famous Cambridge classical scholar and poet, the late A. E. Housman, once criticised an Oxford colleague for his use of texts, with that acerbity which unhappily appears in classical scholarship, especially when the disputants belong to different universities. “Mr So-and-so,” he said, “uses texts much as a drunk man uses lamp-posts, not for the purpose of illumination, but to correct his instability.”

(Deep appreciation to top researcher Stephen Goranson who pinpointed the 1903 citation and brought it to QI’s attention. Great thanks to Barry Popik for his valuable work on this topic. Special thanks to George Thompson whose inquiry gave impetus to QI to continue this suspended research, to formulate this question, and to create this entry. Also many thanks to Victor Steinbok who initiated a mailing list discussion about this quotation, and thanks to the other participants.)

Image Notes: Splashing martini by werner22brigitte at Pixabay. Statistics graphs by Nemo at Pixabay. River lamp by tpsdave at Pixabay. Images have been cropped and/or elongated.

Update History: The 1903 citation was added on January 16, 2014, and sections of the article were rewritten. The 1946 Hansard citation was added on January 17, 2014.

Notes:

  1. 1903, M. Manilii: Astronomicon, Translation and analysis by A. E. Housman (Alfred Edward Housman), Volume 1, Quote Page liii (roman numeral 53), Published by Grant Richards, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1937, Lancer at Large by Francis Yeats-Brown, Quote Page 9, The Viking Press, New York. (Verified with scans of second printing in January 1937; the publication date is also listed as January 1937)
  3. 1937, The Silent Social Revolution: An Account of the Expansion of Public Education in England and Wales 1895-1935 by G. A. N. Lowndes, Section: Preface, Quote Page vi, Oxford University Press, Humphrey Milford: Publisher to the University, London. (Internet Archive) link
  4. 1937 April, Reader’s Digest, Volume 30, Toward a More Picturesque Speech, Quote Page 60, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on paper)
  5. 1937 April 20, Hansard, United Kingdom Parliament, Commons, SPAIN (BRITISH SHIPPING), Speaking: Captain McEwen (Berwickshire and Haddingtonshire), HC Deb 20, volume 322, cc1651-720. (Accessed hansard.millbanksystems.com on January 15, 2014) link
  6. 1937 copyright, Essentials of Debate by John R. Pelsma (John Reinder Pelsma), (Professor of Speech, State Teachers College, Pittsburg, Kansas), Quote Page 72, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, New York. (The Preface by the author is dated July 1, 1937) (HathiTrust) link link
  7. 1937 August, The Atlantic Monthly, A Nation of Onlookers by John R. Tunis, Start Page 141, Quote Page 142, Column 1, The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Massachusetts and New York. (Verified on paper)
  8. September 1937, The Education Digest, “An Uncultivated Field” by Thomas H. Briggs, (Reported from the Teachers College Record, May 1937, Volume 38, Pages 637 to 647), Start Page 12, Quote Page 12, Education Digest, Prakken Publications, Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Verified on microfilm)
  9. 1938 November 11, Register-Republic, Health Statistics Do Not Always Give True Picture, Physician Says by Iago Galdston, M.D., Quote Page 16, Column 7, Rockford, Illinois. (GenealogyBank)
  10. 1946 June 5, Hansard, United Kingdom Parliament, House of Lords (Lords Sitting), IRON AND STEEL INDUSTRY, Speaking: Lord Cherwell (Mr Frederick Lindemann), HL Deb 05, volume 141, cc776-846 776. (Accessed hansard.millbanksystems.com on January 17, 2014) link
  11. 1948 November 16, Daytona Beach Morning Journal, Walter Winchell (Syndicated column), Quote Page 2, Column 3, Daytona Beach, Florida. (Google News Archive)
  12. 1963 March 8, Times-Picayune, ‘Status Quo’ Attitude Rapped, Quote Page 9, Column 5, New Orleans, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)
  13. 1937, University of Toronto Monthly, Volume 37, Issue 7, Address by Lord Tweedsmuir (Governor-General of Canada) to the Ontario Educational Association in Convocation Hall of the University of Toronto on March 29 1937, Start Page 185, Quote Page 185, University of Toronto Alumni Association, Toronto, Canada. (Google Books Snippet View only; this metadata has not yet been verified on paper and may be inaccurate)