If You Torture the Data Long Enough, It Will Confess

Ronald Coase? Irving John Good? Charles D. Hendrix? Robert W. Flower? Bulent Gultekin? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Collecting and interpreting data is a delicate process that is subject to conscious and unconscious biases. The selective choice of inputs and statistical tests can yield results that are misleading. Here are two versions of a comical metaphorical adage:

  • If you torture the data long enough, it will confess.
  • If you torture the data enough, nature will always confess.

Strictly speaking these statements are ambiguous. Each interpretation hinges on whether the information in the coerced confession is correct or erroneous. The usual interpretations presume that the information extracted under duress is incorrect. Thus, torturing the data is counterproductive and not revelatory.

Both of these sayings have been attributed to Nobel Prize-winning economist Ronald Coase. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in an address delivered on April 22, 1971 by British mathematician I. J. Good (Irving John Good) at a meeting of the Institute of Mathematical Statistics. Good’s lecture was printed in “The American Statistician” in June 1972. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

As Ronald Coase says “If you torture the data long enough, it will confess.” When data is tortured, it is useful when possible to reserve some of the sample for testing a hypothesis after it is formulated because there is not yet any satisfactory logic for using the whole of the sample.

Interestingly, Coase stated that he employed a different phrasing for the saying as shown in the citations presented further below dated August 1977 and 1982.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading If You Torture the Data Long Enough, It Will Confess

Notes:

  1. 1972 June, The American Statistician, Volume 26, Number 3, Statistics and Today’s Problems by I. J. Good, (Invited lecture at the 129th Meeting of the Institute of Mathematical Statistics on April 22, 1971), Start Page 11, Quote Page 14, Taylor & Francis, Abingdon, Oxfordshire, England. (JSTOR) link

Nothing But Good Should Be Said of the Dead — He’s Dead. Good

Jackie ‘Moms’ Mabley? Bette Davis? Joan Crawford? Craig Russell? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Two stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age were combative rivals. When one died the other said something like the following:

I was taught that you shouldn’t speak of the dead unless you have something good to say. Therefore, I will only say this, ‘She’s dead at last, good!’

This quip has been attributed to Bette Davis who supposedly was commenting on the demise of Joan Crawford. Yet, the joke may have been in circulation earlier. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in June 1971. The comedian Jackie ‘Moms’ Mabley received credit for a version of the joke in the “Philadelphia Daily News” of Pennsylvania. A columnist stated that Mabley was in town to tape a syndicated television talk show. She aimed the barb at her former husband: 1

Miss Mabley thinks people should marry only for love. She says her father forced her to marry an older man when she was only a child. “It was a miserable marriage,” she said. “But he’s dead, thank goodness. I was always taught never to say anything about the dead unless it’s good. He’s dead. Good!”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Nothing But Good Should Be Said of the Dead — He’s Dead. Good

Notes:

  1. 1971 June 17, Philadelphia Daily News, Cherry Hill scene of ‘Tony rewards’ by Charles Petzold, Quote Page 29, Column 5, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)

What Can Be Explained Is Not Poetry

William Butler Yeats? John Butler Yeats? Carl Sandburg? Ezra Pound? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A reader who requests clarification for a poem that is opaque is sometimes met with a rejoinder of this type: If the lines can be explained then the work is not poetry.

This notion has been attributed to the Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet William Butler Yeats and the U.S. poet and biographer Carl Sandburg. Interestingly, it has also been credited to John Butler Yeats, a painter who was the father of W. B. Yeats. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In 1917 a collection titled “Passages from the Letters of John Butler Yeats” was published in Ireland. The book’s editor, Ezra Pound, stated that he selected the excerpts from notes sent by J. B. Yeats to his son W. B. Yeats between 1911 and 1916. The following remark about poetry appeared in a message dated September 6, 1915. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

I take up some lines of poetry and say I will explain them and make the effort, always to end in giving it up. No explanation is possible. There is nothing to be done except to read out with friendliest voice the lines I started to make plain. What can be explained is not poetry. It is when the powers of explanation desert him that the poet writes verse.

Thus, John Butler Yeats deserves credit for this quotation and not William Butler Yeats. Two mechanisms help to explain this misattribution:

(1) Attributions sometimes shift between people with similar names.

(2) Attributions sometimes shift from a person of lower prominence to a person of greater prominence.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading What Can Be Explained Is Not Poetry

Notes:

  1. 1917, Passages from the Letters of John Butler Yeats, Selected by Ezra Pound, Note: Four hundred copies of this book have been printed, Letter date: September 6, 1915, Quote Page 15, Cuala Press, Churchtown, Dundrum, Ireland. (Verified with scans from archive.org) link

I Thought the Brain Was the Most Important Organ Until I Realized What Was Telling Me That

Emo Philips? George Carlin? Richard Saul Wurman? Dale Dauten? Daniel C. Dennett? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A prominent philosopher of consciousness and the brain included a hilarious joke in a recent book. Here are three versions:

I used to think that the human brain was the most fascinating part of the body. Then I realized, ‘look what’s telling me that’.

I used to think that my brain was the most important organ in my body, but then I thought: look who’s telling me that.

I used to think that the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I realized who was telling me this.

This quip has been attributed to the U.S. stand-up comedians Emo Philips and George Carlin. Would you please explore its provenance?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in a comedy special starring Emo Philips broadcast in 1987 on the cable channel Home Box Office (HBO). Philips told an anecdote during which he was arrested and sent to a psychiatrist for evaluation. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Do you like psychology? I don’t. I used to think that the human brain was the most fascinating part of the body. Then I realized, whoa, ‘look what’s telling me that’.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading I Thought the Brain Was the Most Important Organ Until I Realized What Was Telling Me That

Notes:

  1. YouTube video, Title: Emo Phillips HBO Comedy Special 1987, (“Philips” is misspelled as “Phillips” in the title), Uploaded on January 1, 2020, Uploaded by: Groovy Flicks, (Quotation starts at 35 minutes 30 seconds of 51 minutes 47 seconds), Description: Comedy special starring Emo Philips broadcast in 1987 on Home Box Office cable network), (Accessed on youtube.com on January 10, 2021)

There Is Nothing Quite So Tragic as a Young Cynic, Because It Means the Person Has Gone From Knowing Nothing To Believing Nothing

Maya Angelou? Bill Moyers? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The prominent memoirist and poet Maya Angelou suffered in her early life, but she did not become bitter. She believed that young cynics were tragic figures. Would you please help me to find her comment on this topic?

Quote Investigator: This article mentions rape, murder, and trauma-induced muteness.

In 1988 journalist Bill Moyers produced a documentary about “Facing Evil”. Maya Angelou discussed events from her childhood. She experienced sexual abuse and responded by revealing the identity of her abuser who was jailed and later killed. These harrowing incidents caused her to become mute for almost five years.

While presenting her account within the documentary, Angelou employed the term “sordida” which means dirty, soiled, sordid. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

So out of this evil, which was a dire kind of evil, because rape on the body of a young person more often than not introduces cynicism, and there is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic, because it means the person has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing. In my case I was saved in that muteness, you see, in the sordida, I was saved. And I was able to draw from human thought, human disappointments and triumphs, enough to triumph myself.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading There Is Nothing Quite So Tragic as a Young Cynic, Because It Means the Person Has Gone From Knowing Nothing To Believing Nothing

Notes:

  1. Website: TV Archive at Internet Archive, Television show: Moyers Company on PBS, Interview participant: Maya Angelou, Date on website: September 5, 2014 (Rebroadcast of 1988 documentary), Upload date: September 6, 2014, Website description: Television programs stored at Internet Archive. (Accessed archive.org on January 7, 2021) link

Man Is Ready To Die for an Idea, Provided That Idea Is Not Quite Clear To Him

Paul Eldridge? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The willingness to become a martyr in the service of a noble cause is often celebrated, but the U.S. novelist Paul Eldridge voiced a sardonic viewpoint. He suggested that an individual is willing to die for an elevated idea primarily because the idea is unclear. Would you please help me to find a citation.

Quote Investigator: Paul Eldridge published three slightly different versions of this adage:

  • 1925: Man is willing to die for any idea, provided that idea is not quite clear to him.
  • 1943: Man is ready to die for an idea, provided that idea is not quite clear to him.
  • 1965: Man is ready to die for an idea, provided the idea is not clear to him.

As the statement evolved over time the phrase “any idea” was changed to “an idea”. Also, the phrase “willing to” was changed to “ready to”. Further, the word “quite” was deleted.

The first instance appeared in a piece titled “Cornucopiae” in the journal “This Quarter” in 1925. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Man is willing to die for any idea, provided that idea is not quite clear to him.

If we condemn and torture ourselves, rest assured that torture and condemnation please us, at least, for the time being. We are incapable of really hurting ourselves.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Man Is Ready To Die for an Idea, Provided That Idea Is Not Quite Clear To Him

Notes:

  1. 1925, This Quarter, Volume 1, Issue 1, Editor: Edward W. Titus et al, Published in Milan, Italy; moved to Paris, France, Article: Cornucopiae by Paul Eldridge, Start Page 176, Quote Page 180, Volume 1 originally published in Milan, Italy, Reprinted: 1967, Kraus Reprint Corporation, New York. (Verified with scans at HathiTrust)

Imagination Rules the World

Napoleon Bonaparte? Blaise Pascal? Emmanuel Comte de Las Cases? Hugh Henry Brackenridge? Irving Babbitt? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The French military and political leader Napoléon Bonaparte has received credit for a statement about vision. Here are two versions in English:

  • Imagination rules the world.
  • Imagination governs the world.

Is this attribution genuine? Would you please help me to find a citation in French?

Quote Investigator: Napoléon Bonaparte surrendered to the British and was exiled to the island of Saint Helena in 1815 where he died in 1821. Emmanuel, comte de Las Cases met regularly with the ex-emperor, and he took notes of conversations. The popular work “Mémorial de Sainte Hélène: Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena” was released and translated into English in 1823.

Within a section dated January 1816 Las Cases described meetings with sailors who expressed the highest admiration and good wishes for Napoléon. The statesman observed that the sailors did not really know him, and their intense feelings were based on imagination. Below is an excerpt in French 1 followed by a rendering into English. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 2

Voilà des gens qui ne me connaissaient point, qui ne m’avaient jamais vu, seulement ils avaient entendu parler de moi; et que ne sentent-ils pas, que ne feraient-ils pas en ma faveur! Et la même bizarrerie se renouvelle dans tous les pays, dans tous les âges, dans tous les sexes! Voilà le fanatisme! Oui, l’imagination gouverne le monde!”

He then said, “See the effect of imagination? How powerful is its influence! Here are people who do not know me–who have never seen me; they have only heard me spoken of; and what do they not feel! what would they not do to serve me! And the same caprice is to be found in all countries, in all ages, and in both sexes! This is fanaticism! Yes, imagination rules the world!”

Below are additional selected citations.

Continue reading Imagination Rules the World

Notes:

  1. 1823, Mémorial de Sainte Hélène: Journal de la Vie Privée et des Conversations de l’Empereur Napoléon, à Sainte Hélène par Le Comte de Las Cases, Tome 1 (Volume 1), Seconde Partif (Part 2), Date: January 1816, Quote Page 110, Chez Henri Colburn et Co., Londres. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1823, Memorial de Sainte Helene: Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena by The Count De las Cases, Volume 1 and 2, Date: January 1816, Section: Life at Longwood, Start Page 249, Quote Page 255, Printed by Thomas Smith, Lexington, K. (Google Books Full View) link

Nobody Wants Constructive Criticism; It’s All We Can Do To Put Up with Constructive Praise

Mignon McLaughlin? Alan Sheldon? Stephen R. Covey? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Receiving criticism is painful even when it is described as constructive. The witty journalist Mignon McLaughlin made a germane comment on this theme. Would you please help me to find a citation.

Quote Investigator: In 1960 the unnamed columnist of “Thoughts and Things” in “The Herald Journal” of Logan, Utah printed the following three remarks without attribution. Boldface added to excerpts: 1

Nobody wants constructive criticism; it’s all we can do to put up with constructive praise.

Women are good listeners, but it’s a waste of time telling your troubles to a man unless there is something specific you want him to do.

Most of us could scrape by on twice our present income.

Interestingly, in 1963 Mignon McLaughlin published “The Neurotic’s Notebook”, and the three remarks above were included in the book. The comment about constructive criticism appeared on page 41 within a chapter about health, happiness, and self-esteem. 2 The remark about listening appeared on page 38 within a chapter about men and women. 3 The statement about income appeared on page 84 within a section about getting and spending. 4

QI believes McLaughlin should receive credit for these three remarks. The 1960 columnist probably saw the statements in a preliminary version of the book or an earlier piece by McLaughlin.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Nobody Wants Constructive Criticism; It’s All We Can Do To Put Up with Constructive Praise

Notes:

  1. 1960 July 14, The Herald-Journal, Thoughts and Things: Put Them in Prisons? He Proposes a Better Way, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Logan, Utah. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1963, The Neurotic’s Notebook by Mignon McLaughlin, Chapter 4: Health, Happiness, Self-Esteem, Quote Page 41, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1963, The Neurotic’s Notebook by Mignon McLaughlin, Chapter 3: Men and Women, Quote Page 38, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Verified with scans)
  4. 1963, The Neurotic’s Notebook by Mignon McLaughlin, Chapter 9: Getting and Spending, Quote Page 84, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Verified with scans)

The Only Beautiful Eyes Are Those That Look At Us Tenderly

Coco Chanel? Gabrielle Chanel? Pierre Reverdy? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The eyes of a lover gazing at you are beautiful. The fashion icon Coco Chanel (Gabrielle Chanel) said something germane:

The only beautiful eyes are those that look at us tenderly.

Would you please help me to find a citation for the original statement in French.

Quote Investigator: In September 1938 “Vogue” magazine of Paris published a two page spread of “Maximes et Sentences” (“Maxims and Sentences”) by Gabrielle Chanel. The following statement appeared among the 31 items. Boldface added to excerpts buy QI: 1

Les seuls beaux yeux sont ceux qui nous regardent tendrement.

Here is one possible translation into English:

The only beautiful eyes are those that look at us tenderly.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Only Beautiful Eyes Are Those That Look At Us Tenderly

Notes:

  1. 1938 Septembre (September), Vogue, Maximes et Sentences (Maxims and Sentences) by Gabrielle Chanel, Quote Page 56, Condé Nast, Paris, France. (BNF Gallica Bibliothèque nationale de France) link

The Great Tragedy of Science—The Slaying of a Beautiful Hypothesis by an Ugly Fact

Thomas Henry Huxley? Charles Darwin? Herbert Spencer? Benjamin Franklin? John Dougall? John Tyndall?

Dear Quote Investigator: An elaborate and magnificent scientific theory can completely collapse if a contradictory fact is uncovered. A prominent scientist called this methodological occurrence one of great tragedies of science. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In 1870 biologist Thomas Henry Huxley delivered a speech to fellow scientists in Liverpool, England. The text appeared in the leading journal “Nature”. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

But the great tragedy of Science—the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact—which is so constantly being enacted under the eyes of philosophers, was played, almost immediately, for the benefit of Buffon and Needham.

Huxley used a different phrasing for the expression during a personal conversation with philosopher Herbert Spencer according to statistician Francis Galton. See the 1908 citation presented further below.

This thought has displayed a powerful cultural resonance, and Huxley’s phrase has been repeated, modified, and propagated up to the present day. Here is a sampling with dates:

1870: The slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact
1871: Here is a beautiful hypothesis slain by an ugly fact
1878: A beautiful theory killed by an incontrovertible fact
1886: The slaying of a beautiful theory by an ugly fact
1890: The slaying of a beautiful theory by an awkward fact
1891: The murder of a beautiful theory by an ugly fact
1908: A beautiful theory, killed by a nasty, ugly little fact
1911: A beautiful theory killed by a wicked fact
1912: A beautiful induction killed by a nasty little fact
1918: A beautiful theory killed by a devilish little fact
1920: The murder of a beautiful theory by a gang of brutal facts
1922: A murder of a lovely theory by a gang of brutal facts

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Great Tragedy of Science—The Slaying of a Beautiful Hypothesis by an Ugly Fact

Notes:

  1. 1870 September 15, Nature, Section: The British Association – Liverpool Meeting, 1870, Address of Thomas Henry Huxley, President, Start Page 400, Quote Page 402, Column 1, Macmillan and Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link