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Mark Twain’s take on Facts and Figures

Updated: May 2, 2020

The following are excerpts from a letter to constituents on January 15, 2016

During my musings earlier this year I noted that citizens are bombarded by facts and figures to emphasize the success or failure of various programs.  As an analytical individual I often find that the same facts are used to make opposing arguments.  In my January letter to constituents I suggested that we give weight to the observations of Mark Twain.  This is an excerpt from that letter:

“I would like to caution you to not get carried away with estimated figures, past or present, on any summary to a budget or opinion paper.  Budgets and government programs provide many numbers and projections, which are often hard to compare.  When opposing opinions are presented, much of the data we see is used to make radically differing arguments.   Here is an example.  Suppose that spending on a program was cut last year from $2 million to $1 million.  That is a 50% decrease in spending.  If we return to the same number in the following year, it is a 100% increase. It sounds like we are 50% ahead, but in fact are exactly where we began before the decrease.  This is a simple example, but demonstrates how figures and percentages can be confusing.  And, depending upon one’s opinion, the numbers can be used to make opposing arguments.   An old saying, simplified by the humorist Mark Twain, reminds us of the risk we take when we fail to question the data.  The data used in political arguments is often selected to support some bias.  Mark Twain suggests we consider that “The figures don’t lie, but liars figure.”

This is why I often have a difficult time explaining things.  I want to be thorough and fully explain the facts that support my conclusions.  Unfortunately, we are often provided inadequate time (or space) during public meetings, media interviews and editorial pages.  When you see something in social media and question if it is true, that thought is a first good step to getting the information you need.  I am willing to be your resource to filter through the clutter, so feel free to contact me.”


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