Tag Archives: A. E. Housman

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. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 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 was 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 was 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.

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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