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What is your favorite statistical quote?

This is community wiki, so please one quote per answer.

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    $\begingroup$ Should this question really be "famous quotes about statistics"? $\endgroup$
    – naught101
    Nov 3, 2012 at 4:29

153 Answers 153

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All models are wrong, but some are useful. (George E. P. Box)

Reference: Box & Draper (1987), Empirical model-building and response surfaces, Wiley, p. 424.

Also: G.E.P. Box (1979), "Robustness in the Strategy of Scientific Model Building" in Robustness in Statistics (Launer & Wilkinson eds.), p. 202.

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    $\begingroup$ I use this quote a lot to explain the difficulties in mathematicians transitioning to statistics $\endgroup$
    – user549
    Jul 29, 2010 at 18:48
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    $\begingroup$ This sentence itself is a model (an epistemological one) $\endgroup$
    – user603
    Sep 10, 2010 at 20:00
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    $\begingroup$ but see a nice discussion around this quote on Gelman's blog, j.mp/9SgIBO $\endgroup$
    – chl
    Sep 11, 2010 at 10:21
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    $\begingroup$ And this is an actual quote, as opposed to something "attributed to" Box. It appears, e.g., in Box & Draper (1987), Empirical model-building and response surfaces, Wiley, on page 424. Yes, I did go and look it up before using it in a paper. $\endgroup$ Oct 14, 2010 at 15:53
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    $\begingroup$ Sadly, too many people use it to excuse themselves from the flaws in their models. In my personal experience, it's usage is an alarm sign. $\endgroup$
    – JohnRos
    Feb 2, 2012 at 13:35
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"An approximate answer to the right problem is worth a good deal more than an exact answer to an approximate problem." -- John Tukey

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    $\begingroup$ I like this one, could be put as an advise when people write questions on this site ? $\endgroup$ Jul 27, 2010 at 8:48
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    $\begingroup$ Absolutely...asking the right question is one of the most important skills. $\endgroup$
    – Shane
    Jul 27, 2010 at 14:17
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    $\begingroup$ I remember once where a private industry company commissioned a mathematician to solve a garbage collection routing problem. Long story short, the mathematician complained that the company was only interested in finding a "close enough" solution rather than an optimal solution. I think, ultimately he was fired, and an operations researcher was brought in instead. $\endgroup$
    – dassouki
    Jul 27, 2010 at 17:59
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    $\begingroup$ @dassouki I think the quote is more about the question .... something like science is not about finding good answer but about finding good questions ! $\endgroup$ Jul 27, 2010 at 20:21
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    $\begingroup$ "Far better an approximate answer to the right question, which is often vague, than an exact answer to the wrong question, which can always be made precise." John W. Tukey 1962 The future of data analysis. Annals of Mathematical Statistics 33: 1-67 (see pp.13-14) No doubt he said similar things at other times, but that's a precise source, and the version I usually see quoted. $\endgroup$
    – Nick Cox
    Apr 27, 2013 at 23:02
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"To call in the statistician after the experiment is done may be no more than asking him to perform a post-mortem examination: he may be able to say what the experiment died of."

-- Ronald Fisher (1938)

The quotation can be read on page 17 of the article.

R. A. Fisher. Presidential Address by Professor R. A. Fisher, Sc.D., F.R.S. Sankhyā: The Indian Journal of Statistics (1933-1960), Vol. 4, No. 1 (1938), pp. 14-17. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40383882

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  • $\begingroup$ I read a slightly different version of this quote by Fisher: "Hiring a physician after the data have been collected is like hiring a physician when the patient is in the morgue. He may be able to tell you what went wrong, but he is unlikely to be able to fix it." $\endgroup$
    – Peter Flom
    May 27, 2011 at 18:10
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    $\begingroup$ @Peter Was it really "Hiring a physician after the data ..." or should "statistician" be in there somewhere? $\endgroup$
    – Dason
    Nov 4, 2011 at 14:06
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    $\begingroup$ @dason You're right! Someone edited my post, I think $\endgroup$
    – Peter Flom
    Nov 4, 2011 at 21:05
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87% of statistics are made up on the spot

-Unknown

Dilbert.com Dilbert.com

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    $\begingroup$ imgur.com/0dsVC.gif $\endgroup$ Oct 23, 2010 at 11:59
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    $\begingroup$ And 45.8% of people don't believe that statistic $\endgroup$ Feb 5, 2011 at 13:12
  • $\begingroup$ ROFL ROFL Scott Adams kills me $\endgroup$
    – Hack-R
    Apr 30, 2015 at 19:44
  • $\begingroup$ Ha! Every time I see a forecast that contains too many significant digits I think of this quote. "The number of cell phone owners is forecast to be 4,372,138,975 by the year 2020." Really? As if anyone could forecast better than 4.3B or 4.4B. $\endgroup$ Sep 4, 2015 at 11:31
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In God we trust. All others must bring data.

(W. Edwards Deming)

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    $\begingroup$ God must bring data too. $\endgroup$
    – KalEl
    Aug 19, 2010 at 9:33
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    $\begingroup$ God can make up data. $\endgroup$
    – Leo
    May 28, 2011 at 4:11
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    $\begingroup$ @Leo What data do you have to support that hypothesis? :) $\endgroup$ May 28, 2011 at 13:23
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    $\begingroup$ Ooh, is that a new version of the Omnipotence Paradox? If god made up new data, how could you prove that it wasn't there all along? $\endgroup$
    – naught101
    Nov 3, 2012 at 4:33
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    $\begingroup$ It's axiomatically true. $\endgroup$
    – abaumann
    Apr 16, 2013 at 7:16
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Statisticians, like artists, have the bad habit of falling in love with their models.

-- George Box

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Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.

-Aaron Levenstein

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    $\begingroup$ And life's more fun without them? Guess you can only take a metaphor so far... $\endgroup$
    – naught101
    Aug 21, 2013 at 2:27
  • $\begingroup$ This just became my favorite quote $\endgroup$ Aug 30, 2016 at 11:25
  • $\begingroup$ This maybe? en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Statistics slightly different phrasing though. If you google the entire quote I'm not the only one using it, but no source. $\endgroup$ Apr 26, 2019 at 6:56
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Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.

-- Niels Bohr

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If you torture the data enough, nature will always confess.

--Ronald Coase (quoted from Coase, R. H. 1982. How should economists chose? American Enterprise Institute, Washington, D. C.). I think most who hear this quote misunderstand its profound message against data dredging.

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    $\begingroup$ Yes, your explanation is highly needed. I can imagine that many would take away the complete opposite meaning from the quote. Note to myself, even torture of ideas is evil. $\endgroup$
    – Aditya P
    Sep 23, 2018 at 5:03
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    $\begingroup$ The answer and the above comment are both cryptically hinting that this quote is frequently misinterpreted. How is it misinterpreted? Could somebody just explicitly interpret this quote if the meaning is unclear? I took the quote to mean that for example if you perform dozens of hypothesis tests on a dataset you will eventually get a small $p$-value by sheer luck. Or, in other words, you will find things that look statistically significant but which are merely flukes. Is that the correct interpretation? $\endgroup$
    – littleO
    Sep 4, 2021 at 17:05
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All generalizations are false, including this one.

Mark Twain

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  • $\begingroup$ This is brilliant! $\endgroup$ Jan 19, 2011 at 3:51
  • $\begingroup$ It is, except are there any generalisations that are entirely true? $\endgroup$
    – naught101
    Mar 21, 2012 at 7:15
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    $\begingroup$ @naught101 Definitions and the laws of nature (once we know them) are generalizations that I consider true. Though the former are not very interesting as in: all "true generalizations" are true. $\endgroup$
    – ziggystar
    Feb 3, 2013 at 15:20
  • $\begingroup$ Not necessarily false. It is true probabilistically. $\endgroup$ Jun 18, 2020 at 0:47
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A big computer, a complex algorithm and a long time does not equal science.

-- Robert Gentleman

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    $\begingroup$ Still it looks promising. $\endgroup$
    – user88
    Jul 27, 2010 at 11:20
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    $\begingroup$ Just curious, where did he say/write that? $\endgroup$
    – Hack-R
    Apr 30, 2015 at 19:49
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Statistical thinking will one day be as necessary a qualification for efficient citizenship as the ability to read and write.

--H.G. Wells

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  • $\begingroup$ By God, he was right! $\endgroup$
    – KalEl
    Aug 19, 2010 at 9:32
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    $\begingroup$ I don't know, you've seen many efficient citizens lately? $\endgroup$ Dec 3, 2010 at 23:26
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    $\begingroup$ Still waiting... $\endgroup$
    – naught101
    Nov 3, 2012 at 4:34
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    $\begingroup$ An anonymous user asked for a source for this 'quote'; he/she also indicated that Gigerenzer noted that he searched Wells published output in vain for the original. $\endgroup$
    – chl
    Apr 25, 2013 at 7:00
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    $\begingroup$ There's a published article that also goes into debunking this quotation. Tankard, J.W. (1979). The H.G. Wells Quote on Statistics: A Question of Accuracy. Historia Mathematica 6: 30-33. $\endgroup$
    – Phil
    Jan 2, 2020 at 11:42
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The combination of some data and an aching desire for an answer does not ensure that a reasonable answer can be extracted from a given body of data

Tukey

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    $\begingroup$ As a biological scientist, I find myself muttering this to myself during a lot of seminars... $\endgroup$
    – N Brouwer
    Oct 18, 2012 at 18:05
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    $\begingroup$ This should be taught in management school long before the chapter on KPI calculation $\endgroup$
    – rumtscho
    Feb 6, 2014 at 20:04
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There are no routine statistical questions, only questionable statistical routines.

D.R. Cox

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    $\begingroup$ Rolf Sundberg attributed this quote to J.M. Hammersley in a 1994 article: dx.doi.org/10.1016/0169-7439(93)E0041-2 $\endgroup$
    – onestop
    Jan 28, 2011 at 20:41
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    $\begingroup$ The following was an attempted edit by an anonymous user: "Comment: It is told after the qoute that I have attributed this (excellent) quote to Hammersley. The reason for my attribution of it to Hammersley was that I asked David Cox before I used the quote, and he answered that it was not originally his, but Hammersley's phrasing. Rolf Sundberg". $\endgroup$ May 23, 2013 at 19:51
  • $\begingroup$ This is wrong - evidence? - t testing and p values! routine calculations done all the time. sure it may be "questionable" but it is still routine! $\endgroup$ Jul 17, 2019 at 7:01
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Statistics - A subject which most statisticians find difficult but which many physicians are experts on. "Stephen S. Senn"

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    $\begingroup$ Credit: Stephen Senn, Statistical Issues in Drug Development, page4. media.wiley.com/product_data/excerpt/71/04700187/0470018771.pdf $\endgroup$
    – onestop
    Nov 8, 2010 at 9:03
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    $\begingroup$ I think its because physics has a similar level of pedantry required for statistics, and the physicist has the huge benefit of wanting to get rid of uncertainty, the statistician just wants to describe it. $\endgroup$ Jan 30, 2011 at 11:04
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    $\begingroup$ Physicians $\neq$ physicists $\endgroup$ Aug 18, 2011 at 1:14
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    $\begingroup$ This may be my new favorite $\endgroup$
    – Fomite
    Jul 22, 2012 at 21:51
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    $\begingroup$ Although I could imagine this applying to physicists as well. $\endgroup$ Feb 7, 2014 at 1:16
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He uses statistics like a drunken man uses a lamp post, more for support than illumination.

-- Andrew Lang

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A nice one I came about:

I think it's much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.

By Richard Feynman (link)

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  • $\begingroup$ If I was a betting man I'd say Richard Feynman was an agnostic $\endgroup$ Jan 30, 2011 at 10:48
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    $\begingroup$ Does Feynman qualify as a statistician? $\endgroup$
    – Glen_b
    Nov 3, 2012 at 6:59
  • $\begingroup$ Nice one but Thomas Gray puts it better "Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise." $\endgroup$ Dec 13, 2017 at 9:26
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    $\begingroup$ @Glen_b Actually the question is "What is your favorite statistical quote?" not "What is your favorite quote of a statician?" $\endgroup$
    – user248711
    Jul 23, 2019 at 7:20
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    $\begingroup$ I like this one a lot: "I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of uncertainty about different things, but I am not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don't know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we're here. I don't have to know an answer." - Richard Feynman $\endgroup$
    – Galen
    Jan 21 at 19:05
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Strange events permit themselves the luxury of occurring.

-- Charlie Chan

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    $\begingroup$ I don't mind the down vote, but I maintain that this is a deep statistical point, not to be taken lightly. ;-) $\endgroup$
    – ars
    Jul 27, 2010 at 7:18
  • $\begingroup$ Especially if you are in the financial services sector. $\endgroup$
    – DWin
    Jan 18, 2011 at 22:21
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    $\begingroup$ I would say that the key to cracking the meaning of this quote is to recognise that the word "strange" is relative to what your model of "normal" is. $\endgroup$ Feb 5, 2011 at 13:11
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    $\begingroup$ I this just a verbose way of saying "outliers happen", or is there something deeper I'm missing? $\endgroup$
    – naught101
    Feb 7, 2014 at 2:14
  • $\begingroup$ A similar quote that I like is “With a large enough sample, any outrageous thing is likely to happen" (Persi Diaconis and Frederick Mosteller). $\endgroup$
    – MattBagg
    Feb 13, 2015 at 1:34
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The best thing about being a statistician is that you get to play in everyone's backyard.

-- John Tukey

(This is MY favourite Tukey quote)

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    $\begingroup$ Love this one -- a wonderful bonus of being a statistician. $\endgroup$ Sep 11, 2010 at 17:13
  • $\begingroup$ I'm unsure what this one means. Is that because statistics applies to almost every field? $\endgroup$ Aug 30, 2016 at 11:42
  • $\begingroup$ @Ali, I believe that's the general intent. Statistics can be a very powerful epistemological framework which has found use in multiple fields with extremely complex systems (biology, economics, epidemiology, climate science, etc). $\endgroup$
    – Ashe
    Sep 16, 2016 at 18:17
  • $\begingroup$ This is precisely why I got into the field, i'm nosy! $\endgroup$
    – adunaic
    Oct 14, 2016 at 19:58
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Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Martin Rees (Wikipedia)

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    $\begingroup$ Good quote, but it's not true! Absence of evidence is not proof of absence, but it certainly is evidence. Why do we think magnetic monopoles (or unicorns, for that matter) don't exist? Because we've looked and haven't found any. $\endgroup$ Aug 17, 2010 at 18:15
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    $\begingroup$ Besides, Tzippy is misquoting Sagan, since Sagan never believed that. He in fact listed it among the fallacies in his baloney detecion kit. $\endgroup$ Dec 3, 2010 at 23:31
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    $\begingroup$ @JohnD.Cook, +1. However, your comment relies on the fact that we have looked, and that there was a reasonable chance of having found evidence if it really were there; consider, for example, the various 'missing links' that were ultimately found (and those that have not yet been). $\endgroup$ Feb 6, 2012 at 18:32
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    $\begingroup$ Wikipedia appears to credit Martin Rees... who's also not a statistician. $\endgroup$
    – Glen_b
    May 24, 2013 at 2:12
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    $\begingroup$ @Glen_b It appears that Sagan might have said that in some sense of irony, if it all, being a critic of Martin's quote. That's something to contemplate, for me, since cosmology is so full of examples where predictions have been made to account for inexplicable sources of error that have turned out to be correct (or not quite debunked), e.g. cosmic background radiation, dark matter, and the Big Bang Theory. $\endgroup$
    – AdamO
    Jan 13, 2014 at 17:21
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"It's easy to lie with statistics; it is easier to lie without them."

-- Frederick Mosteller

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Say you were standing with one foot in the oven and one foot in an ice bucket. According to the percentage people, you should be perfectly comfortable.

-Bobby Bragan, 1963

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    $\begingroup$ Wrong: 200 C and 0 C average to about 100 C, which is the boiling point of water. Ovens only go down to about 150 C, and 75 C is still too hot. Now, if you have one foot in scalding water (about 55 C) and another in cold icy water... then you are probably a strange person. $\endgroup$ Aug 4, 2014 at 15:23
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    $\begingroup$ @alexfernandez My oven begins at 50°C. It is a standard oven, and all ovens in the flats that I lived in began at this temperature. $\endgroup$
    – user14650
    Jun 5, 2016 at 9:40
  • $\begingroup$ @what I suppose that low-temperature cooking has brought down minimum temperatures, but I doubt that in 1963 this was the case. $\endgroup$ Jun 5, 2016 at 21:35
  • $\begingroup$ There's a similar Russian idiom that I'd translate as "The average patient temperature in the hospital is normal". $\endgroup$ Jun 7, 2018 at 18:40
  • $\begingroup$ "You cannot wade through a river which is on average 4 feet deep" - Nassim Taleb $\endgroup$
    – dain
    Jan 11, 2019 at 14:52
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Tout le monde y croit cependant, me disait un jour M. Lippmann, car les expérimentateurs s'imaginent que c'est un théorème de mathématiques, et les mathématiciens que c'est un fait expérimental.

Henri Poincaré, Calcul des probabilités (2nd ed., 1912), p. 171.

In English:

Everybody believes in the exponential law of errors [i.e., the Normal distribution]: the experimenters, because they think it can be proved by mathematics; and the mathematicians, because they believe it has been established by observation.

Whittaker, E. T. and Robinson, G. "Normal Frequency Distribution." Ch. 8 in The Calculus of Observations: A Treatise on Numerical Mathematics, 4th ed. New York: Dover, pp. 164-208, 1967. p. 179.

Quoted at Mathworld.com.

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    $\begingroup$ This is a rather free translation of a saying attributed to Gabriel Lippmann by Henri Poincar\'e in his Calcul des probabilit\'es (1896/1912). Original was in French, naturellement. Lippmann won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1908. $\endgroup$
    – Nick Cox
    Apr 29, 2013 at 22:30
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I don't know about famous, but the following is one of my favourites:

Conducting data analysis is like drinking a fine wine. It is important to swirl and sniff the wine, to unpack the complex bouquet and to appreciate the experience. Gulping the wine doesn’t work.

-Daniel B. Wright (2003), see PDF of Article.

Reference: Wright, D. B. (2003). Making friends with your data: Improving how statistics are conducted and reported1. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 73(1), 123-136.

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My greatest concern was what to call it. I thought of calling it 'information,' but the word was overly used, so I decided to call it 'uncertainty.' When I discussed it with John von Neumann, he had a better idea. Von Neumann told me, 'You should call it entropy, for two reasons. In the first place your uncertainty function has been used in statistical mechanics under that name, so it already has a name. In the second place, and more important, no one really knows what entropy really is, so in a debate you will always have the advantage.'

Claude Elwood Shannon

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... surely, God loves the .06 nearly as much as the .05. Can there be any doubt that God views the strength of evidence for or against the null as a fairly continuous function of the magnitude of p? (p.1277)

Rosnow, R. L., & Rosenthal, R. (1989). Statistical procedures and the justification of knowledge in psychological science. American Psychologist, 44(10), 1276-1284. pdf

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  • $\begingroup$ I would love to take this one as my accepted answer ! too good to be true ! $\endgroup$ Jul 27, 2010 at 17:10
  • $\begingroup$ Anyway, I can give a citation of Lehman about that: "There is some convenience in such standardization since it permits a reduction in certain tables needed for carrying out various tests". $\endgroup$ Aug 30, 2010 at 12:37
  • $\begingroup$ Rosnow & Rosenthal's is a very useful, eye-opening quote that is almost correct. $\endgroup$
    – rolando2
    Mar 17, 2011 at 12:15
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    $\begingroup$ @rolando2: please expand. What's not correct about it? $\endgroup$
    – naught101
    Aug 21, 2013 at 2:34
  • $\begingroup$ @naught101 - At this point I can't think of anything :-) $\endgroup$
    – rolando2
    Aug 21, 2013 at 16:32
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On two occasions I have been asked [by members of Parliament], ‘Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?’ I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.

Charles Babbage

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    $\begingroup$ +1 A breathtaking harbinger of the follies of the coming century; "GIGO before its time." $\endgroup$
    – whuber
    Nov 9, 2010 at 15:17
  • $\begingroup$ This makes me think of one of the most fundamental mathematical equations: $\text{crap}=\text{crap}$ $\endgroup$ May 28, 2011 at 13:37
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    $\begingroup$ Are you kidding? Isn't this what economics is all about? $\endgroup$
    – naught101
    Nov 3, 2012 at 6:39
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    $\begingroup$ if I type "stick axchange crss vlidated" into Google, it brings me here! $\endgroup$ Jan 23, 2013 at 9:13
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    $\begingroup$ I've had occasion to use Babbage's wonderful second sentence in a wider range of situations than this. $\endgroup$
    – Glen_b
    Feb 25, 2013 at 0:45
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All we know about the world teaches us that the effects of A and B are always different---in some decimal place---for any A and B. Thus asking "are the effects different?" is foolish.

Tukey (again but this one is my favorite)

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  • $\begingroup$ It has actually led to very interesting articles... :) $\endgroup$
    – Tal Galili
    Jul 31, 2010 at 1:07
  • $\begingroup$ @Tal: Fully agree! I think the whole area on optimal separation in minimax testing is starting from this idea ... and it is still so confused for a lot of statistician. For those interested see the paper of donoho projecteuclid.org/… (and the references in the paper ! since things are much older than donoho's paper) $\endgroup$ Jul 31, 2010 at 6:19
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The subjectivist (i.e. Bayesian) states his judgements, whereas the objectivist sweeps them under the carpet by calling assumptions knowledge, and he basks in the glorious objectivity of science.

I.J. Good

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  • $\begingroup$ oh the bayesian is soooo Good... $\endgroup$ Jul 27, 2010 at 15:39
  • $\begingroup$ I love this one. It is great ! $\endgroup$
    – mlwida
    Dec 6, 2010 at 9:00
  • $\begingroup$ Why are Bayesian always equated with subjectivist? -- What about E.T.Jaynes and the other 'objective Bayesians'? What about all subjectivity within the 'objectivist' frequentism? $\endgroup$
    – gwr
    Dec 5, 2015 at 16:04
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    $\begingroup$ @gwr Well 'objectivity' is a social construct that is subjectively evaluated as an experience, so calling Bayesians out on subjectivity is less meritless because untrue, and more meritless because more or less everyone is subjectivist. ;) $\endgroup$
    – Alexis
    Feb 11, 2018 at 16:52
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Do not trust any statistics you did not fake yourself.

-- Winston Churchill

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    $\begingroup$ This quote seems to be known only in Germany and there is doubt that it is authentic, see the link below where the State Office of Statistics in Baden-Württemberg show results of their research about this quote (sorry its only available in German). The Times, e.g., said that they never heard about it. statistik.baden-wuerttemberg.de/Veroeffentl/Monatshefte/… $\endgroup$
    – psj
    Nov 7, 2010 at 10:58
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    $\begingroup$ The alternative form is "I only believe in statistics that I doctored myself" sometimes claimed to have been put into Churchill's mouth by Goebbels during a propaganda dispute over wartime losses. $\endgroup$
    – Henry
    Nov 23, 2011 at 22:40
  • $\begingroup$ I admit that I did not investigate about the quote's origin. However, the core of the statement remains true. Statistics, especially in mass media, are never presented with the necessary information to estimate their validity or correctness. $\endgroup$
    – ymihere
    Jan 17, 2012 at 9:45
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    $\begingroup$ Does Churchill qualify as a statistician? $\endgroup$
    – Glen_b
    Nov 3, 2012 at 7:01
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    $\begingroup$ @Glen_b If he ever faked some data, then sure! $\endgroup$ Feb 1, 2013 at 13:27
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