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:
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:
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:
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.
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