I'm working on a history of data visualization in which some works from the 1900 “Exhibit of American Negroes” at the Paris World Fair (the Exposition Universelle Internationale) are featured. A nice quote, attributed to him was found at brainyquote.com

When you have mastered numbers, you will in fact no longer be reading numbers, any more than you read words when reading books. You will be reading meaning.

It is a great quote for the purpose, but was challenged by an editor. Any hints for tracking down the source of this quote would be appreciated.

3 Answers 3


Good editor. I wouldn't have thought to challenge that, but its true that numbers weren't exactly Du Bois' thing. Not saying he wasn't good with them, just that isn't what he's famous for, or spent most of his time dealing with.

In fact, the actual source of that quote appears to be Harold Geneen, an accountant by training who retired as CEO of ITT. Wikiquote sources this statement from his book Managing, Chapter Nine (The Numbers), p. 151.

When you have mastered the numbers, you will in fact no longer be reading numbers, any more than you read words when reading a book. You will be reading meanings.

There are a lot of misattributed quotes floating around. As a protip, in the future when you find a good quote, Wikiquote is a good first place to double-check. I've seen it be wrong too, but the nice thing about it is that wrong things can get fixed there, whereas a lot of places will just leave wrong things up forever. Often it will even go so far as to list misattributed quotes.

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    I'd recommend using one or more search engines to find primary sources of any quotation, or else a published audit history of the citation, before using any quote I found, Wikiquote included. 9 times out of 10 it seems that attributions are just pulled out of thin air.
    – Darren
    Commented Apr 4, 2018 at 13:32
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    @Darren - I'd agree with that. I stopped with Wikiquote because in this case it actually gave the primary reference with page number, but if its feasible to go look for yourself to make triply sure (say you don't have to physically go hunt through area libraries), then for sure do that. If it were me, I'd honestly rather ditch the quote than waste a day of my time verifying it to that level.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Apr 4, 2018 at 14:32
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    @Darren as the old saying goes, "Don't believe quotes you read on the Internet." - Abraham Lincoln
    – corsiKa
    Commented Apr 4, 2018 at 23:07

The quote is by Harold Geneen from his 1984 book Managing.

I first found evidence of this from Wikiquote:

  • When you have mastered the numbers, you will in fact no longer be reading numbers, any more than you read words when reading a book. You will be reading meanings.
    • Managing, Chapter Nine (The Numbers), p. 151.

To verify, I did a Google Books search. It does appear to be original text and not a quote within that work.

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    I'm upvoting your simulpost for actually taking the extra effort to find and analyze it from within the book itself. Well, done.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Apr 3, 2018 at 16:48

It's about as likely that it is an African proverb as it is to be an original quote by Geneen -- meaning, it is unlikely to have been written down in the first. So, Geneen would be the first to have written it down -- that doesn't mean it was his quote.

Even Geneen's quote is not exact -- Geneen's work is never sourced with that quote -- except on "Wikiquotes" (take it likely if that is your source). In fact, the body of Geneen's work is cited in academic articles approximately about 500 times or so. Whereas, the attribution of the quote (minus an article "the" before the first mention of numbers) is given to Du Bois nearly 4k times and mostly indicated as "having known to have said".

Anyone can imagine that African proverbs are less likely to reach textual entities because of the auditory and oral mechanisms of knowledge production in such cultures and, thus, are often not attributed to a specific person.

Whereas Geneen takes the words as his, adding a little flavor to it in the form of an article. Du Bois is never cited as having the article.

Given the usage of demography and numbers in the earliest of Du Bois's work as well as his data visualization (which is well-documented), it is curious to resist attributions to Du Bois merely because he -- as stated by an earlier post -- was "not good at numbers". A closer reading of Du Bois's actual work would refute this claim altogether and strongly so.

Perhaps, Geneen should be cited as well with the page number, year, and the additional article. However, to dismiss the widespread attribution of the quote to Du Bois given that it most likely is a production of oral histories and mechanisms seems questionable and a narrow understanding of how knowledge is produced. Only 18 people even cite Geneen's book on management, which means it had nearly zilch influence on how people think about the effect of mastering numbers. The same cannot be said for Du Bois.

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