Statistics Are No Substitution for Judgment

Henry Clay Sr.? Henry Clay? Sar A. Levitan? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: This is the era of big data, and organizations are performing myriad statistical calculations; however, this surfeit of numbers can be misleading. Thoughtful discernment is required to see beyond current information as suggested by the following adage:

Statistics are no substitute for judgement.

This saying has been credited to Henry Clay Sr., a prominent Kentucky politician who served in the U.S. House and Senate. Yet, I am skeptical of this ascription because he died in 1852, and I have only found citations starting in the 1900s. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Over the years many different people shared the name Henry Clay. One mechanism that produces misquotations is the confusion of names. An ascription can jump from one person to another who shares a similar name.

The earliest match for this saying located by QI appeared in 1930 within the pages of the “Evening Sentinel” of Staffordshire, England which reported on a speech delivered to a business group by a Professor of Economics named Henry Clay who was an adviser to the Bank of England. This initial version used the word “substitution”. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

The difference between a successful and an unsuccessful business man lies often in the greater accuracy of the former’s guesses. Statistics are no substitution for judgment. Their use is to check and discipline the judgments on which in the last resort business decisions depend.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Statistics Are No Substitution for Judgment

Notes:

  1. 1930 October 13, Evening Sentinel (Staffordshire Sentinel), Production Prices and Depression: Professor Clay on the Trade Outlook, Quote Page 5, Column 5, Staffordshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)