Mark Twain

Mark Twain in his autobiography (1906-7) mentioned that the remark “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics” had been attributed to Disraeli !

It was my pleasure reading an article written by a senior journalist who was once an energetic activist in the left-wing politics; of course who happened to be a “once upon a time” colleague of mine. The article was written in the virtuous intention of emphasising the importance of data (the fidelity of data). However, quite sadly, the whole article has become a paradox as the author  failed to comply himself to the very virtue that he idolised. The following is my critique of the theory and practice in his article, themed on the misattribution of famous quotations. 

Let me begin with congratulating my colleague on his superb article “WHY IS DATA SO IMPORTANT IN JOURNALISM?“, which was published at his new weblog on the 21st October 2016. I consider it quite ironic that an article written to emphasise the importance of data in journalism happened to be full of unsubstantiated data. 

I understand that he has an irresistible affinity for the American writer Samuel Langhorne Clemens who is well-known in the literary world by his nom de plume, Mark Twain. My colleague has become a sort of brand ambassador for Mark Twain in Sri Lanka in the recent times. However, his credibility as an ardent reader of Mark Twain is subjected to serious doubt by his own writings. I am surprised to read in his index article that he has   misquoted and misinterpreted Mark Twain when he wrote the following:

// One of Mark Twain’s cliche but brainy quote is “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” //

While he is advocating the need for the legitimacy and fidelity of information in journalism, he has just eaten his own words.  I do not see any difference in his journalism from that of the Sinhala newspaper, which he has condemned so harshly. Let me take him to the original saying by his most revered Mark Twain, which was originally published as “Chapters from My Autobiography” in twenty-five articles  in the North American Review in 1906-7. Mark Twain’s complete autobiography was published posthumously in two volumes in 1924. Here, I quote the relevant segment from the first volume of his autobiography.  It is in the chapter: NOTES ON “INNOCENTS ABROAD” and I do quote little longer for the purpose of clarification. (For his information: “The Innocents Abroad” is a travel book by his champion writer Mark Twain)

// I wrote the rest of The Innocents Abroad in sixty days, and I could have added a fortnight’s labor with the pen and gotten along without the letters altogether. I was very young in those days, exceedingly young, marvelously young, younger than I am now, younger than I shall ever be again, by hundreds of years. I worked every night from eleven or twelve until broad day in the morning, and as I did 200,000 words in the sixty days the average was more than 3,000 words a day–nothing for Sir Walter Scott, nothing for Louis Stevenson, nothing for plenty of other people, but quite handsome for me. In 1897, when we were living in Tedworth Square, London, and I was writing the book called Following the Equator, my average was 1,800 words a day; here in Florence (1904), my average seems to be 1,400 words per sitting of four or five hours.

I was deducing from the above that I have been slowing down steadily in these thirty-six years, but I perceive that my statistics have a defect: 3,000 words in the spring of 1868, when I was working seven or eight or nine hours at a sitting, has little or no advantage over the sitting of to-day, covering half the time and producing half the output. Figures often beguile me, particularly when I have the arranging of them myself; in which case the remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force:

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” //

Any donkey who reads the above excerpt from Mark Twain’s autobiography can understand that Mark Twain was just referring to another person’s (Benjamin Disraeli’s according to Mark Twain) saying. What does my colleague, who claims himself that he is the godfather of Mark Twain do? I wonder how uncomfortable Mark Twain’s soul resting in Woodlawn cemetery in New York would feel, if it happened to read my colleague’s remarkable sentence:

// One of Mark Twain’s cliche but brainy quote is “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” //

Former British premier Benjamin Disraeli was a prolific writer. You can even find a novel based on Muthu Coomaraswamy (Ananda Coomaraswamy’s father) in Disraeli’s work! But surely not “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.

Who is my colleague and what is my colleague to write such rubbish implying the possession of the so called cliché (please remember that my colleague is an expert in French) to his love Mark Twain. This is an unforgivable insult to Mark Twain by his own godfather. The saying “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” was certainly not said originally by Mark Twain. Although, Mark Twain had attributed the saying to Benjamin Disraeli who was a former premier of England, there has not been any documented evidence in the wealth of literature penned by Disraeli himself or by any other to justify the claim. 

My colleague exhibits his ranked ignorance and utter confusion as well as his academic dishonesty when he writes the following nonsensical paragraph:

// Many who quote this to ridicule statistics ignore the fact that Twain attributed the saying to the then British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and it relates to the political context of the time. Is it right to quote it today? //

What rubbish is it to say “it relates to the political context of the time” when Disraeli had  not said such a saying? These are all fabrications and confabulation by my colleague. Mark Twain observed a misunderstanding of a few sentences in the famous speech “TO MY FELLOW-DISCIPLES AT SARATOGA SPRINGS” by the British economist and politician Lord Leonard Henry Courtney in New York in 1895. Lord Courtney said:

// After all, facts are facts, and although we may quote one to another with a chuckle the words of the Wise Statesman, “Lies—damned lies— and statistics,” still there are some easy figures the simplest must understand, and the astutest cannot wriggle out of. So we may be led to the serious consideration of change by the evolution of materials of conviction which those who run may reed, though some who read may wish to run away from them. And when the means of cure are found to be easy and practicable, the end ought to be near. In view of this forecast I hesitate, even in addressing my fellow-believers at Saratoga, to add another word. And yet the truth must be told. //

Lord Courtney in his famous speech in New York (1895) did not specify Disraeli or any other when he said “the Wise Statesman” despite the definitive article.

Lord Courtney did not specify Disraeli or any other when he said “the Wise Statesman” despite the definitive article. Perhaps, it may be Disraeli referred to as “the Wise Statesman” but there has not been any convincing evidence regarding the context of the lecture to confirm it. 

I hope that my colleague will understand the defects and deficiencies of his article in regard to the credibility of the facts. In particularly, my colleague should have been more attentive and cautious about the fidelity of his facts as he was writing on the very same topic of the importance of data in journalism. In fact, my colleague has been notorious for misquotation and misinterpretations. I remember that my colleague has misquoted and misinterpreted Joseph Stalin for something which he had never said. 

I will not go into a discussion about the nuances in my colleague’s article regarding the definitions of facts, data, statistics, evidence etc. Bandula Kudalagama had previously written an article about scientific method regarding Western and indigenous medical practices in which he had discussed about data, facts, evidence, evidence based medicine etc. if my colleague wishes to study about the limitations of statistics, I recommend him to read a classical book titled  “How to Lie with Statistics” by Darrell Huff

Let me conclude this note now. My colleague should be more responsible in his endeavour and conduct as a journalist. He needs to read a lot and study a lot on the topics that he wishes to write about. Just because a laptop computer was gifted to him by a political organisation or just because his internet bill is paid by a political organisation, he should not write and publish nonsense. Even without a genuine versatility, one may still appear as an erudite scholar until one comes up with his thoughts in words. As soon as one opens one’s mouth the pandit becomes a bakapandit. My dear colleague, do not make an exhibition of yourself in the blogosphere. Please stop misleading the young generations with your fallacious articles

Segiriye Keerale.


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