October 27, 2012

lies, damned lies, and statistics

Posted in proverb at 11:09 pm by Feng

lies, damned lies, and statistics – a phrase to complain the misuse of statistics to support weak arguments [wikipedia]

I learned this phrase from a professor in our school who was digging some historic reports published by the school in the past and collecting some statistics.

Apparently this phrase was popularized by Mark Twain in his autobiography: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”

At first, I didn’t quite understand what it means. I thought that was an unfair prejudice against statistics, a well-established branch of science. But then I realized it was expressed in the context of complaining the “misuse” of statistics. That makes sense.

This article, titled “Lies, damn lies, and statistics about red light jumping”,  gives a good example about the usage of the phrase.  Statistics show that “57% of UK cyclists jump red lights”. However, it turned out that the statistics were collected based on random users over the Internet filling some on-line surveys. A further breakdown of “57%” shows that in fact, only 1.9% cyclists confessed to red light jumping; another 11.8% did so “sometimes” while 24.6% did “rarely”, and 19.1% had done so once or twice.  Hence, the claim “57% of UK cyclists jump red lights” is ridiculously wrong and is highly misleading. When reading up to this point, I couldn’t help saying to myself: “lies, damned lies, and statistics“.

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