John Maynard Keynes on graphs and statistics

23 Mar, 2013 at 17:49 | Posted in Statistics & Econometrics | Comments Off on John Maynard Keynes on graphs and statistics

In his review in 1938 of Historical Development of the Graphical Representation of Statistical Data, by H. Gray Funkhauser, for The Economic Journal, the great economist writes:

“Perhaps the most striking outcome of Mr. Funkhouser’s researches is the fact of the very slow progress which graphical methods made until quite recently … In the first fifty volumes of the Statistical Journal, 1837-87, only fourteen graphs are printed altogether. It is surprising to be told that Laplace never drew a graph of the normal law of error … Edgeworth made no use of statistical charts as distinct from mathematical diagrams.

Apart from Quetelet and Jevons, the most important influences were probably those of Galton and of Mulhall’s Dictionary, first published in 1884. Galton was indeed following his father and grandfather in this field, but his pioneer work was mainly restricted to meteorological maps, and he did not contribute to the development of the graphical representation of economic statistics.”

So far so good. But then comes the kicker:

“Mr. Funkhouser has made an extremely interesting and valuable contribution to the history of statistical method. I wish, however, that he could have added a warning, supported by horrid examples, of the evils of the graphical method unsupported by tables of figures. Both for accurate understanding, and particularly to facilitate the use of the same material by other people, it is essential that graphs should not be published by themselves, but only when supported by the tables which lead up to them. It would be an exceedingly good rule to forbid in any scientific periodical the publication of graphs unsupported by tables.”

I’m ok with that—if they also forbid the publication of all tables unsupported by graphs. Also if they allow graphs by themselves. Then I’m totally on board.

Andrew Gelman

Well, actually, I think Keynes was more right than wrong, considering how difficult it was back in the 1930s to get hold of other people’s data. Including tables made the data available to other researchers and thereby made it easier to evaluate the validity of the statistical analysis.

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