Figures Don’t Lie, But Liars Do Figure

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.

Here is a selected subset of citations in chronological order. To illustrate the genesis of the expression a series of precursors are presented first. In Congress in 1852 the idea behind the expression is recorded, but the pedestrian statement does not use any clever wordplay and it is forgotten [TCG]

This is what led Mr. McLane into his hasty error; and I will say here, that hasty errors, and hasty letters, ought to be carefully avoided, particularly in matters of arithmetic, for, unfortunately, figures never lie, though men sometimes do.

In August of 1852 another writer grapples with the proverb “figures won’t lie” and suggests appending an amendment that includes the word “liars”, but the concision and elegance of the modern version are nowhere to be found [NEL]:

The old saying, that “figures won’t lie,” is true, without doubt; and the same may be said of letters, marks, and other signs of thought. But the mode in which many use figures, in order to carry a point, has sometimes tempted us to believe that the hasty remark of the Psalmist, if paraphrased thus – “all men” – who deal in statistics “are liars,” – is not far from the truth.

In 1854 the idea of the saying was expressed with succinctness, but no droll wordplay is used [HCFL]:

Figures won’t lie; but men that draw up the tables may.

In 1869 an angry columnist in a Halifax, Nova Scotia newspaper says that the proverb “figures won’t lie” is incorrect and presents an exaggerated oppositional statement [HNFL]:

The New York “World” has discovered, according to its own account, a deficit of over forty millions in his calculations. What a horrible satire it is to say that figures won’t lie. They are the greatest liars in the modern world.

In 1884 the full proverb is used in an article about successful and unsuccessful merchants. This is the earliest appearance located by QI, and the quotation is grouped together with other aphorisms. No attribution is given [NDL]:

“Keep pushing, ’tis wiser than sitting aside, And sighing, and waiting, and watching the tide;

In life’s earnest battle they only prevail, Who daily march onward and never say fail.”

Figures don’t lie, but liars do figure.

The continual complaining of some merchants make everybody tired. If the chronic kickers will pay more attention to their own business they might in time accomplish something for themselves, but no, they complain about dull trade and wonder at the grand success of the great sale of bankrupt stock now going on at the St. Paul Store.

The second earliest instance of the proverb located by QI occurs in 1888 in the Los Angeles Times and is spoken by Col. L. F. Copeland during a speech attacking the ideas of Robert Ingersoll who was a famous lecturer and freethinker. Copeland’s lecture is titled ‘The Mistakes of Bob Ingersoll’ [LTL]:

Mathematics is an exact fact; figures don’t lie, but liars sometimes figure.

Bob is an attempted theologian. He has exhibited his greatest invective against the Bible.

In 1888 another instance of the maxim appears in a Sacramento, California newspaper in an article discussing the contentious economic topic of free trade [SCL]:

It was a highly protective measure. The cry of free trade was a false one, and was maliciously put forth by “the uncrowned king” and other Republican leaders. Figures would not lie, but liars will figure, and were doing so in this campaign. She said that not a mill would shut down or a hammer stop from the passage of the Mills bill. Too much money was being made by them.

On June 25th of 1889 the statistician Carroll D. Wright gave the opening remarks at a Convention of Commissioners of Bureaus of Statistics of Labor. Two different versions of his remarks were published, and excerpts from both are presented below. Wright is recorded using the proverb in both versions, but QI believes that the first version given below displays the greatest fidelity to Wright’s speech. The second version is described as a “condensed report”.

In the first version Wright labels part of the expression “a new saying”, and this is evidence that he is not the creator of the aphorism. This is consistent with the citations presented above which show the saying was already being disseminated. Here are Wright’s words [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. We can only do this by being absolutely fair ourselves.

The second version immediately below is prefaced with the following description: “Through the courtesy of Hon. Horace G. Wadlin the following condensed report of the proceedings of the recent Convention of the Commissioners of Bureaus of Labor Statistics has been furnished to the American Statistical Association.” The following sentences are from Wright’s speech [CDW2]:

It has been said that figures will not lie. It is equally true that liars will figure. It is our duty to prevent liars from figuring in the interest of any theory, by presenting original data fairly.

Later in 1889 newspaper coverage of the conference did mention the remarks of Wright and did quote him delivering the maxim [TXW]:

The president in his opening address says truly that “figures do not lie,” but he qualifies this by facetiously saying that “liars will figure.” That is the great trouble with statistics; liars and cranks will add, subtract, divide and theorize.

Still later in 1889 another instance of the quote appears in an article arguing about sewer routes in California. Soon the maxim will be attached to Carroll Wright, but there are still examples, like this one in 1889 and others in the 1890s, where the saying is unattributed [LSL]:

Statements are easily made; their value, however, depends upon the reliability of the parties who make them. Figures don’t lie, but liars will figure. I challenge an investigation of the situation

In 1890 a missive to the Los Angeles Times credits an anonymous “somebody” with the maxim [LTC]:

To the Editor of The Times. “Figures don’t lie, but liars sometimes figure,” is the way somebody put it, and an article in the January number of the new monthly, “California,” published in San Francisco, seems to verify the maxim as amended.

Jumping forward over several years of citations to 1895, one finds that the quote has been assigned to Wright in a journal aimed at printers and lithographers [PCW]:

… he shows that a man does not become a competent operator in a month or six weeks, and that records depend very much on the way the string is measured – matter that is measured minion in some places is measured nonpariel in others – and forces belief in Carroll D. Wright’s saying that “figures don’t lie, but liars will figure,” …

In 1898 a laudatory profile of Carroll D. Wright emphatically credits him with originating the maxim [BCW]:

Carroll D. Wright, Commissioner of Labor, United States Department of Labor, Washington D.C ., who has just been honored with membership in the Institute of France, and honorary membership in the Imperial Russian Academy of Sciences, is one of the foremost statisticians of the world. … It was he who originated the now famous and much misquoted saying, “Figures do not lie, but liars figure.”

Some modern reference works credit the American politician Charles Grosvenor with the aphorism, but QI has not found any solid evidence for this attribution. The 1910 citation given below provides some evidence that Grosvenor did not craft the maxim. The saying is used in a toast delivered by James Tanner, a politician and former soldier, at a banquet. Tanner and Grosvenor were both Union soldiers during the Civil War and later became political figures. Tanner knew Grosvenor for many years and sought out his political advice regarding the prediction of election results.

At the banquet Grosvenor gave the first toast and Tanner gave the fifth toast. Tanner referred to Grosvenor by his nickname, “Old Figures” and then employed the maxim; however, he did not credit it to Grosvenor. Instead, Tanner called it an “old-time maxim, as old as the ages.” At a ceremonial occasion it would natural to credit the creator of a maxim, especially when using it in his presence. If Grosvenor was the creator then Tanner was clearly unaware of this fact since Tanner labels it “as old as the ages”. Here are the words of Tanner [BTL]:

I want the figures. I desire to hear from him we have known for many years as ‘Old Figures,’ and when Grosvenor was silent, I felt that defeat was sure. I did not, in coming to that conclusion, fail to remember that the old-time maxim, as old as the ages, had been time and again found true, that while figures can not lie, liars can figure. I felt it was not safe to predict until Grosvenor had spoken, and he being silent, I knew that Judgment Day had come.

The well-known adage was sometimes assigned to other colorful personalities. A citation in 1910 credits an American politician named James G. Blaine with using the famous phrase. Blaine is still remembered today because of a famous rhyming electioneering song used by opponents that called him a “Continental liar from the State of Maine”. (Thanks to ace researcher Victor Steinbok for locating this cite) [JBL]:

No uniform system of accounts will run itself, and it will doubtless remain true that, as late James G. Blaine remarked, “figures will not lie, but liars will figure.”

In 1913 the saying is attributed to another charismatic individual, Mark Twain, in a Boston medical journal [MBJL]:

The temptation is irresistible,–nay is so subtle that it is not recognized as a temptation,– to use statistics to prove whatever point one wishes to establish. Indeed their peril is so great as to make one instinctively suspicious of any conclusion reached by their means, and almost to justify that other famous saying of Mark Twain, that “Figures can’t lie, but liars will figure.”

Before concluding here is a comment on the form of the aphorism: The saying can be conveyed in many different ways. For example, the first part can use the following sub-phrases: figures won’t lie, figures can not lie, figures don’t lie, figures do not lie, figures will not lie, and figures would not lie. The second part can use the following sub-phrases: liars do figure, liars will figure, liars can figure, liars sometimes figure, and liars figure. And those are just a subset of the possibilities. In selecting matches QI demanded the presence of four terms that capture the wordplay: figures, lie, liars, and figure.

In conclusion, this famous saying is not attributed to anyone in the earliest occurrences found by QI starting in 1884. The statistician Carroll D. Wright did use the saying during a high-profile speech in 1889, but he did not craft it. Misattributions abound, but QI has not found any solid evidence for crediting the phrase to any specific individual. QI thanks you for your question and hopes you will keep figuring.

[CDW1] 1890 [1889 June 25, date of opening remarks at  the convention], Joint Documents of the State of Michigan for the Year 1889: Volume III Part I., Seventh Annual Report of the Bureau of Labor and Industrial Statistics Issued February 1 1890, Page 311, Darius D. Thorp: State Printer and Binder, Lansing, Michigan.  (Google Books full view) link

[TCG] 1852 July 28, The Congressional Globe, 32nd Congress First Session, Page 1956, Column 1, Printed at the Globe Office, Washington. (Google Books full view) link

[NEL] 1852 August, The New Englander (New Englander and Yale Review), Article IV: The Sources of our Population, Page 393, Number XXXIX, F.W. Northrop, New Haven. (Google Books full view) link

[HCFL] 1854 September 11, Hartford Courant, The Engine Controversy, Page 2, Hartford, Connecticut. (ProQuest)

[HNFL] 1869 November 20, Morning Chronicle, The Week: United States, Page 2, Column 2, Halifax, Nova Scotia. (Google News archive)

[NDL] 1884 February 29, Grand Forks Daily Herald, The Fire Laddies: The Great Public Benefit, Page 1, Column 2, Grand Forks, North Dakota. (GenealogyBank)

[LTL] 1888 July 13, Los Angeles Times, Long Beach: Summer Training School and Alliance Assembly: The Mistakes of Ingersoll Pointed Out by Col Copeland, Page 2, Column 1, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)

[SCL] 1888 October 2, Sacramento Daily Record-Union, Page 2, Column 3, Sacramento, California. (Chronicling America: Library of Congress)

[CDW2] 1889 June, American Statistical Association, Convention of Commissioners of Bureaus of Statistics of Labor, Page 283, Vol. 1, No. 6, Publication of the American Statistical Association.  (Google Books full view; also JSTOR) link link link

[TXW] 1889 July 12, San Antonio Daily Express, Page 2, Column 3, San Antonio, Texas. (NewspaperArchive)

[LSL] 1889 August 5, Los Angeles Times, A Strong Argument: Against the Ballona Sewer Route, Page 5, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)

[LTC] 1890 February 17, Los Angeles Times, The Northern Citrus Fake, Page 4, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)

[PCW] 1895 January, The Inland Printer, Changes Wrought by the Composing Machines by Hugh Wallace, Page 345, Maclean-Hunter Pub. Co. (Google Books full view) link

[BCW] 1898, Second Biennial Report of the Bureau of Labor of the State of New Hampshire: Volume IV, Labor Bureaus: Carroll Davidson Wright, page 89, Arthur E. Clarke: Public Printer, Manchester, New Hampshire. (Google Books full view) link

[BTL] 1913 [1910 November 16 Banquet], Report of the Proceedings of the Society of the Army of the Tennessee, Fortieth Reunion: Banquet: Fifth Toast: Comrade Tanner, Page 159, Press of the Chas. O. Ebel Printing Co., Cincinnati, Ohio. (Google Books full view) link

[JBL] 1910 [1909 November 16-19 Convention of the National Association of Railway Commissioners] Proceedings of the 21st Annual Convention, Railway Depreciation Accounts by W. J. Meyers [This paper was printed in the proceedings but not presented at the convention], Page 410, National Association of Railroad and Utilities Commissioners, United States. (Google Books full view) link

[BMJL] 1913 October 2, Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, The Perils of Statistics, Page 509, Vol. CLXIX, No. 14, Massachusetts Medical Society, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books full view) link

2 thoughts on “Figures Don’t Lie, But Liars Do Figure”

  1. I think the phrase I have been using is different and has a different meaning. The statement I have used is as follows, “figures lie and liars figure”. I modified the original statement because of my experience as a cost study analyst within a major corporation during the 70’s and 80’s. It was a commentary on the way some used cost data and presented it in a way that distorted the outcoming misleading the audience.

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