Editorial: Lies, damned lies, and statistics

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 1993:

Most ANIMAL PEOPLE readers probably remember the saying, variously attrib-
uted to Benjamin Disraeli and Abraham Lincoln, that there are lies, damned lies, and sta-
tistics. In popular interpretation, the saying equates three categories of misinformation. In
practice, however, as both Disraeli and Lincoln knew, accurate statistics are perhaps the
most powerful means we have of demolishing lies and damned lies––which often reside in
purported statistics that don’t withstand scrutiny.
Inaccurate statistics are correspondingly an invitation to public demolition by one’s
opponents. When animal advocates take outdated or sloppily compiled numbers into public
debate, they figuratively stand up with pants unzipped. Some activists believe a big number
is most convincing and dramatic, whether or not it can documented. Yet people are more
often moved by the plight of one animal than that of many. “Millions” are overwhelming
and abstract. Smaller numbers are more hopeful. People feel empowered to save a certain
number; after that, the effort seems impossible and response diminishes.

Whatever the numbers are on a given issue, ANIMAL PEOPLE knows statistics
matter. When new statistics become available on any aspect of animal use or abuse, we
ascertain their source, consider their accuracy, and make them public. The numbers place
issues in perspective, measure our progress, calculate the distance we have yet to go, iden-
tify areas needing further attention, and help persuade people who have become inured to
mere theoretical argument. We give you current, accurate numbers so you won’t be caught
and embarrassed when you use the old ones, which may be familiar but which often have no
current application.
We also work to develop reliable statistics in many areas where the numbers pro-
vided by other organizations are either inaccurate or don’t exist. During the past two years
alone, we have conducted surveys, collaborated with enterprising associates, and done
investigative research to help produce the most authentic data currently available on feral cat
health, population dynamics and rescue methods; roadkills; trapping activity; fur trade
income; pet theft; cruelty sentencing; animal shelter rosters; shelter intakes and euthana-
sia; the relative frequency of common management problems at animal shelters; and eco-
nomic activity by animal protection groups.
If you need a solid number, on any animal-related topic, give us a call. If it exists,
we’ll find it or tell you where to get it. If it doesn’t exist, we’ll tell you so.
As Mark Twain put it, “Get your facts first. Then you can distort ’em as you
please.” Stripped of irony, Twain’s point was that real distortion occurs from careless
research. Good research often yields facts that are subject to divergent interpretation, but
the basis for interpretation will at least be reliable.
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