Lies, Darn Lies, and Statistics - for Historians

Tutor: David Clayton

Module type: MA Skills

Module code: HIS00107M

Credits: 10

Mark Twain attributed the phrase ‘Lies, Darn Lies, and Statistics’ to the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. He was wrong – Disraeli did not utter it. But he was also right: the devious can use numbers to support weak arguments. This is because thinking numerically does not come naturally to us. We instinctively prefer Tom Sawyer, Twain’s invented narrator, to tell us a story. Our number-blindness gives propagandists using statistics a major head start. Aware of this universal trait, and conscious that most BA History courses avoid teaching formal quantitative history, this module provides a basic introduction into how historians use quantitative methods. It focuses on two simple problems: how to order data and how to use it to measure changes across time. It provides a foundation for analytical statistics, using measurable variables to differentiate historical causation from random coincidence. Students will learn practical skills (how to use software) and debate philosophical issues (turning numbers into evidence). You require no prior knowledge of statistics: if you can count, and want to collect and analysis numbers from the past, sign up.

Credit: Dan Piraro / Bizarro

The provisional programme is as follows:

Week 1: Briefing (1 hour)
Week 2: Context/theory seminar: Statistics 101 (2 hours)
Week 3: Practical workshop I: Ordering Data (4 hours)
Week 4: Practical workshop II: Presenting Trends (4 hours)
Weeks 5-8: Independent project work
Week 8: Project Mini-Conference (3 hours)

Preliminary Reading 

  • Hudson, Pat and Mina Ishizu. History by Numbers: An Introduction to Quantitative Approaches. London: Bloomsbury, 2016.
  • Feinstein, Charles H. and Mark Thomas. Making History Count: A Primer in Quantitative Methods for Historians. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  • Wheelan, Charles. Naked Statistics: Stripping the Dread from the Data. New York: WW Norton & Company, 2013.


For more information, please refer to the module catalogue.