It takes one to know one

Mark Twain famously said “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics”; in that light, I found the following anecdote – from “The Drunkard’s Walk, a thoroughly enjoyable book so far - pretty funny.

Like most of his compatriots, Jules Henri Poincaré, the legendary French mathematician, took his bread seriously, and purchased a fresh loaf daily. Suspecting his baker was a cheat, he weights his loaves every day, and finds out the average weight is 950g instead of the 1000g advertised. He complains to the authorities – and his daily baguette suddenly becomes larger. But now, instead of enjoying his good life, Poincaré still suspects his baker is a cheat, and keeps on measuring his bread for an entire year, and finds out that he now got mostly larger than 1000g loaves, and too few light ones. For him it’s great; but from a statistics standpoint, this doesn’t sound right: he should have roughly as many small and large loaves. Poincaré concludes that the baker is still cheating, but gives him the biggest loaf of his inventory every day to pacify him. He calls the authorities in again, who confirm he is right, and slam the baker.

The moral of the story: don’t lie to statisticians!


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