Peddling past the Miami Beach Convention Center this morning, I noticed above its entrance a red scrolling message sign announcing a meeting of the American Statistical Association as part of the 2011 JSM (or Joint Statistical Meetings), billed as the largest gathering of statisticians in North America.
For myself, and probably for a great number of laymen, this field of study brings up associations with a quote included in “Chapters from My Autobiography” by American author and humorist, Samuel Clemens–more popularly known by his pseudonym Mark Twain. “Figures often beguile me, particularly when I have the arranging of them myself,” he wrote. Then referring to a quote he attributed to British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, Twain went on to popularize the quip: “‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.’” Ironically, historians have been unable to substantiate the supposed origins of the now infamous phrase.
Of course, we all live in a world where we are constantly bombarded by conflicting figures arrayed by political pundits and ideologues in support of or in opposition to various political policies or programs. So it becomes ever more essential that the public have groups like the ASA and others working to ensure the legitimacy of the statistics devised by interested parties.
The idea of using graphic statistics to simplify and make difficult ideas or constructs more comprehensible is not a new phenomenon. The Wolfsonian Library, for example, possesses a copy of the rare 1847 edition of Oliver Byrne’s The First six books of the elements of Euclid. Published by William Pickering and printed by C. Whittingham, this book pioneered the use of “coloured diagrams and symbols” in the place of letters to facilitate “the greater ease of learners.”
The library also holds a series of books from the early nineteen hundreds that employed vibrantly colored statistical graphs, tables, and pie charts, some of which I have included in this blog post. In this particular instance, the diagrams were arranged to demonstrate the progress being made in the construction and extension of railroad lines into Portugal’s overseas colonial possessions.
In the 1930s especially, statistics became an important vehicle for swaying the masses, especially in the Soviet Union given the literacy rates in the country.
The Russian leaders employed designers like El Lissitzky to create all sorts of visually pleasing and easily comprehensible graphical statistics in official publications such as U.S.S.R., an album illustrating the economic achievements of the Soviet regime designed for distribution at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
The Bolsheviks even produced sets of postcards with visually arresting statistics designed to marshal support for their five-year plan for industrial growth and development, and to support their contention that the Capitalist nations languishing during the Great Depression were doomed.
Not to be outdone by Soviets propagandists, publishers in the United States also employed statistically driven books to demonstrate the “progress” being made in the country. In fact, American “graphic histories” like the one pictured below were also very popular in the era of the “common man” and “average Joe.”
During the depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration published large numbers of books loaded with charts, graphs, and other statistical evidence of the need for—and the effectiveness of—New Deal public works projects.
Although our library display is yet only in the planning stages, I would encourage any of the attendees of the JSM to drop by the library at the museum on 10th and Washington Avenue any time from 12:00 to 5:00 P.M. on Thursday. Let the person at the Box Office know you’re here with the conference, and the librarians would be happy to provide you with a personalized tour of some of the items being considered for inclusion in the display.