Statistics
Belloc, Hilaire
STATISTICS By HILAIRE BELLOC THERE is an old and true jest which says that there are three kinds of lies, bad, worse and worst, and there these are lies, damned lies and statistics. The reason...
...One of the very worst forms of statistical lying is flattering a diseased population by telling them that they are physically healthy (and we may note, by the way, that statistics are used half the time to bolster up self-congratulation and pride...
...If he is not you suggest it by implying it...
...Ask yourself what may have been left out...
...But we must use them in the right way, that is, confining them strictly to the information that they convey and not falling into the error of thinking that information is complete...
...For instance, in the example I just gave, you produce statistics to show that the town workman must be happier because he travels over more ground, gets a daily paper every morning, goes to movies...
...But the three things which here matter socially can't be put down as statistics, which are the degree in which the religion is believed, the degree in which it is exercised, and the effect which it has, even when faith in it is partly lost, upon character...
...Our civilization may be gradually getting rid of its old confidence in false teaching...
...But if you actually convince the man of what looks like the plain proof of figures, if you show him by comparative tables that he must be happier because he consumes more of this or that or has more money or what not, then you are telling the worst lie of all, which is the lie of statistics...
...You feel the difference between good and evil, happiness and unhappiness, beauty and ugliness...
...In Germany just before the Reformation statistics would have given you a population of 100 percent Catholic...
...The disease of statistics is also part of our general modern disease of going in everything by measurement...
...But other things never are equal...
...Thus nothing is commoner than to have the average length of life set down as a test of health...
...You cannot intimately know anything by mere measurement...
...And even then it is not a sure guide...
...There are a hundred things to be remembered besides that simple proposition...
...Meanwhile you leave out the other statistics, statistics on the purity of the air that is breathed, or the proportion of artificial chemical foods eaten by the town workman and the peasant...
...Ask yourself whether the conclusion arrived at does not clash with your general experience (as it usually does) and if so, mistrust it...
...The reason this joke is true is that statistics can be generally used to convince people of a falsehood...
...whether it is really doing so or not...
...For instance, in the middle ages, the wealthier laymen had much shorter lives than modern wealthy laymen...
...I am not sure that the best use of statistics is not the following: Upon hearing the statistics of anything, treat the statement negatively and critically at once...
...But Germany in the early sixteenth century was ripe for a great revolt against the Faith...
...Are we then not to use statistics...
...But at any rate there is enough of false teaching left to merit perpetual examination and rebuttal, and the worst of it works through statistics...
...It is hopelessly misleading...
...If you tell people common lies (such, for instance, as telling the workmen in one of our great industrial towns that they lead happier lives than peasants) you may put it plainly, as a bald lie intended to dope your victim into a false content...
...The truth is, however, just the other way: you know most certainly things which you cannot measure...
...Of course there is a connection between the two things...
...Such an attitude of mind leads to no direct conclusion but it breeds a healthy doubt, and a healthy doubt on current statements is nowadays perhaps the best mental habit one can cultivate...
...The most important things cannot be measured...
...The use of the average really only applies where the thing on which you are taking statistics is evenly spread over the whole of society...
...but you are suggesting the first principle that cinemas, daily papers and moving the body about in mechanical vehicles are the three things that build up the happiness of the human soul...
...Then again, you must consider the kind of things that kill off men...
...statistics of lack of work, of variety in work— and any number of other differences all telling in favor of the peasant...
...but then they spent their time riding about in all weathers to administer the country, they were perpetually engaged in arms, sleeping rough and taking long marches and carrying heavy armor...
...only the future can show...
...This use of the average falsifies the great bulk of half the social statistics used to prove falsehoods about society...
...A very active, healthy and robust population may be slightly shorter lived than a dull, slow population, which is not therefore healthier...
...you feel degrees in beauty and happiness or their opposites, but you can't say John is 11.62 percent happier than Harry...
...You cannot say that this landscape is exactly three times more beautiful than that...
...Then you show that, according to this false first principle, certain figures prove your conclusion...
...You can give any amount of perfectly true figures to show that all that is true...
...You don't attempt to prove it if your victim is already poisoned by it...
...or you may embellish the remark with a quantity of illustration and fine language to persuade him the more and then your lie may properly be called a damned lie—for in the evil you are doing you are showing a zeal which has a diabolical touch about it...
...Common sense is enough to warn us against innumerable errors in the use of statistics, but there is one which I think ought to be emphasized beyond all others, and that is the use of the average...
...You leave out other figures which would destroy your conclusion— and there you are...
...There is a pestilent modern notion that unless you can measure things exactly you do not know them...
...what other statistics have not been told...
...That is why, by the way, one has to be so very careful of what are called religious statistics...
...They ran the risk of violent death continually, and often received it...
...it seems like doing so...
...Other things being equal a healthy man will live longer than an unhealthy one...
...To conclude that such a man as William the Conqueror was less robust than a banking magnate of today passing his ninetieth year on the Riviera, would be a triumph of statistics...
...statistics of suicide, of death from drink...
...Statistics give you in modern Ireland a percentage about one-third lower...
...You take for granted a certain false principle...
...There is a sardonic saying about two men one of whom was struck by lightning, whereupon the survivor mused that upon the average they were both half dead...
...Ask yourself what elements not measurable are implied in the situation...
...A modern wealthy man does not live that kind of life—far from it...
...Out of 100 people, thirty may set down on a bit of paper that they are of such and such a religion: "30 percent" goes down in the statistics...
...Of course we must use them...
...We are bound in duty to use all forms of knowledge available to us...
...The way the statistical lie works is this...
...modern Ireland, on the contrary, is the most Catholic of all nations...
Vol. 12 • September 1930 • No. 21