George Bernard Shaw? Bertrand Russell? Oscar Wilde? John H. Gibbons? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: The following quotation is used by speakers who are planning to project a series of slides that are filled with statistics. The words are credited to the famous dramatist and intellectual George Bernard Shaw. Here are two versions:
The sign of a truly educated person is to be deeply moved by statistics.
It is the mark of a truly intelligent person to be moved by statistics.
The second version was printed in the Congressional Record in 2008. I have been unable to identify the original source of this remark, and I think knowing the context is essential. Neither expression sounds like something that Bernard Shaw would say. But perhaps it was employed by a character in one of his plays, and the words were satirical. Could you examine this quote?
Quote Investigator: QI believes that the origin of this saying can be traced back to a book authored by another prominent intellectual. In 1926 Bertrand Russell, the British philosopher and essayist, published “Education and the Good Life” which included a chapter titled “The Aims of Education”.
Russell listed four characteristics forming the basis of an ideal character: vitality, courage, sensitiveness, and intelligence. Education, he believed, should develop and enhance these qualities. His discussion of sensitiveness included a phrase mentioning statistics. Boldface is used to highlight key phrases in the following: 1 2
The next stage in the development of a desirable form of sensitiveness is sympathy. There is a purely physical sympathy: a very young child will cry because a brother or sister is crying. This, I suppose, affords the basis for the further developments.
The two enlargements that are needed are: first, to feel sympathy even when the sufferer is not an object of special affection; secondly, to feel it when the suffering is merely known to be occurring, not sensibly present. The second of these enlargements depends mainly upon intelligence. It may only go so far as sympathy with suffering which is portrayed vividly and touchingly, as in a good novel; it may, on the other hand, go so far as to enable a man to be moved emotionally by statistics. This capacity for abstract sympathy is as rare as it is important.
The phrase about statistics was memorable, and in May 1926 the reviewer of Russell’s book in the New York Times selected the words and reprinted them: 3
Sensitiveness is the capacity for emotional response. Nor is there anything mawkish about it: “The emotional reaction must be in some sense appropriate; mere intensity is not what is needed.” Sympathy, yes, but a discriminating sympathy. It should not only be refined, but extended by the intellect—even so far “as to enable a man to be moved emotionally by statistics.”
In June 1926 Glenn Frank published an editorial calling for action against the high rate of illiteracy in the United States. Frank was the President of the University of Wisconsin and the former editor of Century Magazine. His piece mentioned Russell’s remark about statistics: 4
As Bertrand Russell has suggested, the test of the quality of our sympathy comes when we are called upon to aid suffering or need when the needy one is neither an object of special affection nor sensibly present.
Are we great enough to be “moved emotionally by statistics?”
I do not know a statistical figure that is freighted with more human drama than this: 5,000,000 illiterate Americans.
The citations below trace the evolution of the quotation over the decades. For many years, different iterations of the saying were credited to Bertrand Russell, but curiously the expression was reassigned to George Bernard Shaw by 1981. Both men were noteworthy intellectuals residing in England, and they had overlapping life spans. QI believes that the similarity of names “Bernard” and “Bertrand” facilitated the mistaken transition of the attribution to Shaw.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Glenn Frank wrote a syndicated opinion column, and he employed the phrase about statistics on multiple occasions while crediting Russell. For example, in the following article from a Texas newspaper in July 1926, Frank praised a man that he knew for his sensitivity to the feelings of others: 5
He could feel the pathos of an annual report on industrial accidents as he could feel the pathos of the sinking of the Titanic.
He could actually “be moved emotionally by statistics.”
In 1928 an Iowa newspaper published a column by Glenn Frank in which he discussed Russell’s views about education: 6
… he says we must educate men to be so interested and sensitive that they can be “moved emotionally by statistics,” able to feel a need they cannot touch or see.
In 1930 a member of the American Association of University Women delivered a speech about illiteracy in Texas, and she made a remark about statistics, but she did not attribute the words to any specific person: 7
“The test of sympathy in a man is whether he can be emotionally moved by statistics,” she said.
In 1932 Glenn Frank continued to use and popularize the expression in his book “Thunder and Dawn”: 8
The captaincy of Western affairs calls for men who, as Mr. Russell phrases it, can actually “be moved emotionally by statistics.”
In 1939 the journal “Mountain Life and Work” printed a statement that was similar to a modern instance of the quotation: 9
Here is a land rich in natural resources which suffers from a deficiency in all the things by which social scientists measure economic welfare. Figures? Statistics? Yes! But, says Bertrand Russell, “no man is educated who is not moved emotionally by statistics.”
This earliest citation currently known to QI connecting George Bernard Shaw to the saying appeared in 1981. The physicist John H. Gibbons credited a version of the quote to Shaw during a symposium about energy. For more than a decade Gibbons was the director of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment: 10
I will refer to numbers and statistics in this paper and remind you that George Bernard Shaw once said that a mark of an educated person is that he or she can be emotionally moved by statistics!
In 1991 an opinion piece titled “The Struggle Against Cancer” in the Washington Post credited Shaw with an instance of the saying: 11
George Bernard Shaw remarked that a truly educated person is one “who can be moved deeply by statistics.” He had a point, but he might better have noted that the educated person is also the one who knows that statistics can be used to prove almost anything.
In 1993 Norval Morris, a prominent Professor of Law, presented a variant statement which he ascribed to Shaw: 12
George Bernard Shaw offered the proposition that “one indicator of a sensitive and perceptive person is the capacity to be moved by statistics.” Do please consider what those statistics portray.
In 1994 Forbes magazine printed a version of the saying ascribed to Shaw on the page dedicated to quotations titled “Thoughts on the Business of Life”: 13
It is the mark of a truly intelligent person to be moved by statistics.
-George Bernard Shaw
In 2007 the well-known journalist and political commentator Bill Moyers suggested that Oscar Wilde should be attached to the saying: 14
BILL MOYERS: You know, it– Oscar Wilde, I think it was, said, “It’s the mark of a truly educated person to be deeply moved by statistics.”
In 2008 Congressional Representative Nancy Pelosi used the expression and credited Shaw: 15
Mr. Speaker, it is said, and it’s been said directly by George Bernard Shaw, that it is the mark of a truly intelligent person to be moved by statistics.
In conclusion, QI believes that this collection of related expressions originated with Bertrand Russell’s book-length essay about education in 1926. The key phrase “moved emotionally by statistics” was eye-catching, and it was repeated by other commentators. The phrasing evolved over time, but the context of education was often preserved. By 1981 the expression had been reassigned to George Bernard Shaw. This may have occurred because of confusion between “Bertrand” and “Bernard”.
(Thanks to Lee Lewis whose inquiry about this saying provided the impetus for QI to construct this question and perform this investigation.)
- 1926, Education and the Good Life by Bertrand Russell, The Aims of Education, Start Page 47, Quote Page 71, Liveright Publishing Group, New York. (Reprint created after 1954 renewal of copyright) (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1961, The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell: 1903-1959, Edited by Robert E. Egner and Lester E. Denonn, The Aims of Education, Start Page 413, Quote Page 423, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1926 May 30, New York Times, Bertrand Russell Depicts the Intelligent Radical: He Offers New Lamps for Old in a Scheme for Educating the Post-War Child by Evans Clark (Review of “Education and the Good Life” by Bertrand Russell), Page BR7, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1926 June 3, Washington Post, Let’s Read and Write by 1930 by Glenn Frank, Quote Page 6, Column 5, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1926 July 24, San Antonio Express, The Art of Being Sensitive by Glenn Frank, Quote Page 8, Column 7, San Antonio, Texas. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1928 September 29, Waterloo Evening Courier, Courage Creates Truth by Glenn Frank, (McClure Newspaper Syndicate), Quote Page 6, Column 2, Waterloo, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1930 March 10, University Women Given Illiteracy Figures for Texas, Quote Page 13, Dallas, Texas, (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1932, Thunder and Dawn: The Outlook for Western Civilization with Special Reference to the United States by Glenn Frank, Quote Page 231, The Macmillan Company, New York. (HathiTrust) link ↩
- 1939 October, Mountain Life and Work, Volume 15, Number 3, From Mountain to Plain by T. B. Cowan (A sermon delivered at the Union Church, Berea, Kentucky), Start Page 2, Quote Page 3, Column 1, Published by Berea College; Council of the Southern Mountains: Berea, Kentucky. (Berea College Online Repository) link ↩
- 1981 August 21, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Volume 125, Number 4, Energy Productivity: Opportunities, Constraints, and Progress by John H. Gibbons, (Read in the Symposium on Energy, November 14, 1980), Start Page 251, Quote Page 255, Column 1, Published by American Philosophical Society. (JSTOR) ↩
- 1991 December 20, Washington Post, The Struggle Against Cancer by Jessica Mathews, Quote Page A27, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1993, The Socio-Economics of Crime and Justice, Edited by Brian Forst, The Honest Politician’s Guide to Sentencing Reform by Norval Morris, Start Page 303, Quote Page 308, M. E. Sharpe, Armonk, New York. (Google Books Preview) ↩
- 1994 January 31, Forbes, Volume 153, Thoughts on the Business of Life, Quote Page 148, Column 3, Forbes Inc., New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 2007 August 3, Bill Moyers Journal, Transcript, (Discussion between Bill Moyers and Barbara Ehrenreich), (Online repository of transcripts at pbs.org; accessed February 20, 2013) link ↩
- 2008 June 12, Congressional Record – House, Volume 154, Part 9, [Words spoken by Representative Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California], Page 12326, Column 1, Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. (Google Books full view) ↩