3.01.2009

All Statistics Are Lies

Mark Twain once said "There are liars, damned liars, and statisticians." As historians we tend to argue over the small points, of whether this statistic is correct, and how we interpret populations and subsets of figures. We find statistics to support our own assertions and dig no deeper than is necessary. But as we say in accounting, are these figures really material to the investigation?

I, for one, try to step away from filling my arguments with numerous statistics and endless volumes of endnotes and focus on a more logical approach. Communicating most effectively begins when we relate to the common logic of the human mind, and approach the discussion with confidence and recognize the human need for empathy. 

Most of my assertions are backed up by anecdotal forms of history, stories of real people that allows the average person to identify with the times, be it twenty or two-thousand years ago. When you form that connection with the reader then history becomes real, and it transcends the inherently dry nature of the subject. Through proper communication techniques you can make even the most boring subjects seem alive to your audience.

There are times when statistics are warranted or even necessary, but an argument based on statistics and inference is like a house of cards - if any are found to be erroneous or tendentious it can possibly negate the entire trust you try to establish with your audience. Focus on  forming a logical order that is hard if not impossible to refute, and try to bring history alive to a new generation.

2 comments:

David said...

I thought Benjamin Disraeli made the "damned lies" statement. No matter, it's true.

I'm not a statistics kind of guy either and my history articles have included few numbers. Maybe I should use more. It's easier for me to take a statistic and translate it into plain English such as, the death rate among Union soldiers was half that of Confederate soldiers. The idea to be conveyed is that it was more dangerous being a Johnny Reb than a Billy Yank and we don't need columns of numbers for that (besides, Civil War numbers are very soft).

Greg Taylor said...

You are both right according to Wikipedia. The phrase was originally made by Disraeli and popularized by Mark Twain in America through his autobiography.

Statistic are useful if used in context. If I read the comment that "Antietam was the single costliest day in American military history, I want to see the numbers (26,134 causualties)and it would be helpful to see the comparable number for June 6, 1944. BTW, if the Anteitam number is very soft it makes the battle even more horrendous.