Carroll D. Wright? Mark Twain? Charles H. Grosvenor? James G. Blaine? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: I hope you will be able to settle a disagreement between friends concerning the following quotation:
Figures don’t lie, but liars figure.
My friend believes that this saying originated with Samuel Clemens otherwise known as Mark Twain. I think it was created by Carroll D. Wright who was once the top statistics expert in the United States. Could you research this quote and help us to determine who composed it?
Quote Investigator: The saying has been credited to Mark Twain for more than ninety-five years, but the first citation for Twain located by QI is dated 1913. This is after Twain’s death and there is no corroborating evidence for the attribution in Twain’s own writings.
Carroll D. Wright was a prominent statistician employed by the U.S. government, and he did use the expression in 1889 while addressing the Convention of Commissioners of Bureaus of Statistics of Labor. But Wright did not claim that he coined the expression [CDW1]:
The old saying is that “figures will not lie,” but a new saying is “liars will figure.” It is our duty, as practical statisticians, to prevent the liar from figuring; in other words, to prevent him from perverting the truth, in the interest of some theory he wishes to establish.
Wright indicates that the second half of the quotation which is a twist using wordplay on the first half is a “new saying”. Indeed, QI has traced the statement back a few more years. The oldest three citations found by QI contain no attributions. The first instance is in a North Dakota newspaper of 1884 where the sentiment is presented as an anonymous piece of wisdom.