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Rules of Quotation

When faced with the task of saying something smart about statistics in general, we often find ourselves quoting great people. There’s a well known remark by Winston Churchill that is particularly popular. The editor-in-chief of a important business newspaper used it recently, just as many others have in the past. He had to write an introduction to a highly useful compendium packed with statistics related to international numbers that was being published by the same company. To emphasize the quality of the data gathered in the book, he referred to Churchill, trying to reassure him post-humously by saying that the data came from absolutely trustworthy sources and that he would certainly have appreciated the potentially surprising connections the book comes up with.

The problem is that this well-known saying isn’t Churchill’s at all, but was attributed to him by Joseph Goebbels.

Anyone still wanting to use dead British statesmen to bolster their arguments are better off finding someone else. Benjamin Disraeli, for example, coined the equally oft-quoted “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” Or at least, Mark Twain claims Disraeli said it. Plenty of others attribute it to Twain himself.