ScienceSkepticism

“That’s just an anecdote”

I hate when people say that. So does Suzanne E Franks at Thus Spake Zuska:

One of the many reasons for the existence of this blog is to tell stories about what happens in real women’s lives – naming experience. Telling stories and naming the experience are worthwhile endeavors in and of themselves. It drives me nuts the way some people use “anecdote” as if it were equivalent to “uninformative, unreliable, meaningless”. An anecdote is “a short account of a particular incident or event of an interesting or amusing nature, often biographical.” Anecdotes – the biographical kind – are illustrative and sometimes just as powerful as all the cited studies in the world.

Even when you cite the literature, you can still find yourself dismissed. I’ve heard people respond, for example, to the stereotype threat literature “oh, that’s all in an artificial setting, who knows if it happens in real life.” Anecdotes are real life.

I know I’ve written about this before, but I have a few more thoughts on the topic.

I would go further, however, and say that anecdotes are often more powerful tools for communication than cited studies and data points. That’s why the book I am writing is my de-conversion story rather than a bunch of anti-apologetics arguments. I’m taking a cue from Christians who learn that their personal testimonies are by far the most powerful way to bring their message to outsiders. Apologetics are only used for individual edification and for formal debates.

I would almost go as far as to say that perhaps story telling is the way our brains work. I have read a fair number (a frakking huge number compared to the average human being, I would suspect) of books about cognitive science and human cognition. One of my favorites is a slim volume by Mark Turner called The Literary Mind. Turner is, according to the book flap, “Professor of English and an affiliate of the Center for Neural and Cognitive Studies at the University of Maryland.” Here’s part of the blurb from Amazon: 

“The literary mind is the fundamental mind,” [Turner] states, then launches into a complex explanation of how thoughts take the form of stories, or parables, and how parables are the vehicle for comprehension and organization of experiences. Turner illustrates his definition of the parable–stories with an associative purpose–as the most basic habit of mind in discussions of the tales of Shahrazad and the novels of Proust, but he also dissects such subtle properties of parable as its illumination of space and time. He concludes by rejecting the notion of grammar’s being inherent in the genetic code, as theorized by Noam Chomsky, and declares, instead, that parable is the wellspring of grammar.

I’m not a cognitive scientist, but I think there’s something to this, even if the idea is oversimplified.

Another book I have, The Story Factor by Annette Simons, attacks this issue from a different angle. The subtitle of this book is “Inspiration, Influence, and Persuasion Trough the Art of Storytelling.” The entire theme of the book is that you can be much more persuasive by telling a story — even a short anecdote — than you can by cramming facts down someone’s throat. Let them feel what you are saying and they may follow you through some subsequent data and come to their own conclusion. But if you don’t grab their hearts in the first place, you will never have a chance to capture their minds.

I don’t agree with everything in either of these books, but I find both of their premises intriguing and worth considering. Especially for skeptics, who often tend to write off story telling as “just anecdote.”

writerdd

Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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16 Comments

  1. There’s a difference between an effective communication tool and an accurate representation of the world. If I were the sort to draw grandiose conclusions about “memetics”, I’d say that a good many of the myths which bedevil us are memes which transmit well as stories but do not reflect reality.

    I have no shame about beginning an essay with a personal reminiscence or deploying fables and parables to anchor the human relevance of my arguments. However, such appeals are the beginning of a good argument, not the end.

  2. We like stories, we even love stories, and I agree that narrative processing is one of the better explanations as to how our brains work and sort out information. One of the problems that some scientists and rational thinkers have often had is their inability to communicate in an approachable narrative style while trying to educate. Part of what my wife is currently involved in is teaching university professors how to be better “story tellers” in their class rooms. An uphill proposition for some prof’s.

  3. The way I think of it, anecdotes are the “visual” illustrations (in verbal form) for the argument or information being defined, presented, and supported in the rest of, well, whatever is being presented in the verbal presentation.

    A good argument is still a good argument, but a good anecdote to powerfully illustrate that argument gives it more force, more emotional impact, and grounds the reader/listener in how to apply the information or the position being argued.

    ~Wordplayer

  4. Wordplayer
    I totally agree, sort of like translating the dry data into something digestible and appealing. Clearly woo of all kinds has the market cornered with regard to anecdote and emotional appeal. And all the more reason for energetic and passionate skeptical efforts such as this blog.

    Rock on Big D!!

  5. But an anecdote is “just and anecdote”. It can’t prove anything. Do you feel won over by people’s stories of how well acupuncture worked for them? Because all those anecdotes leave me cold.

    I don’t disagree that we (skeptics) could be better at marketing and “winning people’s hearts” but I don’t think I would go as far as saying anecdotes are more important than proper cited studies. But you don’t say “more important” you say “more powerful tool for communication” so maybe you are right.

    It makes me sad though. Reflecting on how well marketing and storytelling work makes me wish for a more logical and analytical society.

    But I suppose we need to fight with the tools that work if our goal is to spread critical thinking and the skeptical message.

    You can see I am a bit torn on what to think on this one! Sorry to ramble but there are my meandering thoughts for what they are worth.

  6. Monika,

    Do you feel won over by people’s stories of how well acupuncture worked for them? Because all those anecdotes leave me cold.

    I don’t get goose bumps from people’s Christian testimonies either, but I think that’s because I’ve trained myself not to. I don’t even watch “human interest” stories on the news. Maybe I’m just jaded. Or maybe it’s because I’m a geek so I like data. I’m not sure. But I think I’m atypical.

    I don’t think we should use anecdote or story as the only means of communication, but I think it will open doors that data-filled reports never will. And when we shut people down by saying, “that’s just anecdotal,” what they probably hear is, “your story doesn’t count,” and that will close any doors for further communication.

  7. As I’ve noted previously: It’s no coincidence that postmodernism grew out of literary theory.

    But I digress. Anecdotes are wonderful because they allow us to bring some detail into focus, which is something that data can’t do nearly as well. In Donna’s case, I think her book will show the profound humanity of those who are no longer theists.

    It may not produce any converts (or deconverts), but it will help show that atheists are humans, not monsters, which is something that some people still don’t seem to get.

  8. Well, there’s no question that anecdotes are effective. But lots of logical fallacies are effective arguments. That doesn’t mean they are proper arguments.

    That said, anecdotes have their place. The trouble is figuring out what they are appropriate for, and what they aren’t. You can’t be enforcing a double standard between your own arguments and your opponents. What they are not appropriate for is demonstrating that a particular occurrence is common. For most everything else, they’re fine.

    The other problem with anecdotes is that they’re particularly vulnerable to certain other fallacies, such as post hoc ergo propter hoc or forgetting about the placebo effect. In most of these cases, it’s not the anecdote itself that’s the problem, but it indirectly causes other problems. It’s an oversimplification to condemn all anecdotes just on this basis.

  9. Donna – I think you hit the nail on the head. Data appeals to me because I am a nerd. I don’t even mind if the data proves me wrong because that is interesting (although of course I will probably want a close look before I change my mind!).

    In that we are probably different to many people.

    So I guess it is about becoming better communicators by understanding other people better. Which is a good goal. I do understand what you are getting at about keeping a dialogue open and not shutting people down.

    But some days I just want to scream at my friend that keeps trying to get me to try acupuncture!

    Also I genuinely do wish people would be a little more analytical. I can remember recently finding out the reason veins are blue (I’m pretty sure this was a link from the Skepchick quickies). It’s not the common oxygen myth. I was fascinated. And when I shared the story with my friends they were fascinated too – and not angry or upset to be proven wrong. I wish that attitude was more prevalent.

  10. Anecdotes are useful for attracting interest and personalising a story. If you want to tell a human interest story about your and others’ experiences, anecdotes win. But if you want me to believe facts about your new therapy I want cold hard clinical trials.

    So yes, anecdotes are useful, but they have less validity than non-anecdotal evidence in certain situations. Because they are often used in the wrong situations as if they have equal validity with scientific experiments (for instance, in arguments in favour of homeopathy, acupuncture or ghosts) they tend to attract some suspicion in the sceptical community.

    As Mark Crislip of Quackcast says, “The plural of anecdote is anecdotes, not evidence.”

  11. But without supporting evidence, an anecdote is ‘just an anecdote’. As, by now, everyone should be aware of how inaccurate and subjective our memory of an experience is, even among trained observers. Doesn’t mean it has no value per se, or that we should automatically dismiss it or the person relating it. The problems only arise when anecdotes magically transmute into data without any actual supporting evidence.

  12. So how do we respond when we hear someone using an anecdote as if it does have the same validity as a clinical trial?

    I don’t know the answer just throwing out the question.

    If we don’t want to shut people down or turn them away with “that’s just an anecdote” or “the plural of anecdote is not data” (love that one – and the similar version from SkepticalSally above) then what should we say?

    Any thoughts?

  13. Well, the autism link that Amanda included in today’s quickies shows what can happen when story-telling and anecdote is out of control and not based on any data. Sigh.

    Most people who are not skeptics or writers have no idea (I don’t think) what “anecdote” and “anecdotal evidence” mean.

    Sadly, I often just don’t think it’s worth wasting my breath to argue. I am not sure there’s any way out of this besides better childhood education and, unfortunately for society, many people who need the educational fix the most are withdrawing their children from public school and home-schooling them.

    If you really care about certain issues, I think you should be armed with your own stories to tell, and back them up with data. Tell the person something like “That story is certainly interesting, do you know of any related studies so I can look into this further? I’d like to find out what evidence exists for XYZ. Have you heard of this story, backed up by this evidence?” Or something like that.

    Perhaps at some point you’ll have the opportunity to discuss the validity of anecdotal evidence with them in the future. But I think we have to do our best to “win friends & influence people” first.

    Oh my god, if I sound like someone promoting “friendship evangelism.” Please shoot me now before it’s too late.

  14. Don’t know if anyone agrees, but I think there’s a difference between a story and an anecdote: a story makes an abstract or complex thing concrete, while an anecdote is the exact opposite: concrete, specific events offered up as some kind of (fallacious) argument (hence ‘anecdotal evidence’).
    I’ve just been reading the New Yorker, which is often journalism at its most ‘story-like’. New Yorker prose is not emotional, set up to provoke indignation, hilarity or contempt, but rather uses descriptive language to bring the (often ‘dry’) subject matter to life. There are countless examples of such effective storytelling: the 9/11 Report as a comic strip, the Dover trial reenacted as a PBS documentary, etc.
    I don’t think stories are the rationalist’s enemy, nor a way of dumbing down or ’emotionalizing’ the arguments. What they are is tools to make the abstract more concrete.

  15. Pseudonym,

    My book serves two purposes for me. First, as you say, it will be a human story about an atheist, and one that many Christians can relate to because that atheist used to sit in the pew next to them.

    Second, I hope my book helps other people who are on the edge or in the process of de-converting to have an easier time of it.

    cronopio,

    In literary circles, an anecdote is just a little story that is not as fully developed as a longer piece. That is, it might be a full paragraph or even a page or two, but it is not fleshed out completely enough to be considered a short story or a novel. Basically an anecdote is a story with the details left out. I don’t see any difference. They both serve the same purpose, which is to personalize the information being conveyed. Both can be misused to avoid the need to present real data and both can be used to reinforce the data.

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