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 theÂ stereotype threatÂ literature “oh, that’s all in an artificial setting, who knows if it happens in real life.” AnecdotesÂ areÂ 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 powerfulÂ 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:Â
“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.”