Three pie charts; the one on the left says "led to error by youth," the one in the middle shows "always good," and the one to the right says "mortal," showing a fully colored-in pie
Miki Lowe

A Word on Statistics

A poem by Wisława Szymborska, published in The Atlantic in 1997

In “On Statistics,” Wisława Szymborska takes the language of data, with its air of easy certainty, and uses it to measure some of the messiest, most complex aspects of human nature. The result is absurd, and it underscores how ill-equipped those quantitative measurements are for answering the biggest questions in life.

When Szymborska won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996, she took the occasion to praise uncertainty—and the ability of poetry to linger in it, allowing the unanswerable. “Poets, if they’re genuine, must also keep repeating ‘I don’t know,’” she said in her acceptance speech. Szymborska died in 2012, leaving an oeuvre that tackles weighty subjects with wit and curiosity, and never presumes to have figured things out.


A pdf of the poem 'A Word on Statistics' by Wislawa Szymborska, with tiny colorful pie charts in the margins