Stop using anecdotes to prove your argument!

Stop it, seriously. It doesn’t work, and you’re making yourself look foolish.

Using anecdotal evidence to support your argument is a popular but wrong way to win a debate. Examples would include: calvin_arguing1

I know a guy who wasn’t wearing a seat belt in an accident and he came out better than if he had been wearing one, so therefore seat belts are bad.

I personally have experienced and met people on welfare who are lazy bums abusing the system, so therefore most people on welfare are like that.

My insurance rates went up, so therefore Obamacare is terrible because it requires insurance rates to go up.

It’s been the coldest month ever, so therefore there is no global warming.

I had a flu shot but still got the cold, so therefore vaccinations don’t work.

I know some (insert ethnicity/sex/sexual orientation/religion here) who are (insert insulting description here) so therefore they are all (insert insulting description here).

See where this leads? Is this the kind of argument you want to be making? Aren’t you smarter than that?

Nothing is 100%. Seat belts are good only 99% of the time. Vaccinations don’t stop diseases in every single instance. The vast majority of people on food stamps are not cheats and they really need them.

The next time you do this, I am going to point to you and say, “This person is an idiot based on the anecdotal evidence I am seeing in their most recent post.”

And hopefully, you’ll get the irony.

*  Note:  I mostly made this post so that I can link people to it whenever they try to make that sort of argument.  Feel free to do the same.

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2 thoughts on “Stop using anecdotes to prove your argument!

  1. I recently discovered that apparently while I wasn’t having any more children (quit after the third), homebirth vs. hospital birth has become the new hot topic in the “how are we going to tell who did a better or worse job delivering their child and whose experience was more natural” arena. OK, that was snarky. There are some people who choose homebirth due to outrageously high rates of C-sections in all the available local hospitals, just as there are some vegetarians who don’t eat meat as a personal choice because they find they personally feel better when they don’t, and not because they believe that everyone would be better off not eating meat.

    You are asking how this is related to this post … the New York Times published a discussion piece http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2015/02/24/is-home-birth-ever-a-safe-choice and I was trawling through the comments. Unsurprisingly, an extremely high percentage of them were anecdotal:
    “I / my friend had a homebirth and everything was fine” — well yes, there are lots of anecdotes like yours. Even if all the OB-GYN’s are correct that the maternal / neonatal mortality rate is 3-4 times higher at a homebirth than a hospital birth, both those rates are still very, very small in the US, so the expectation the vast majority of the time is that a homebirth will be successful and trouble-free, just like you experienced.
    “So many of my friends who had hospital births have had emergencies and ended up with C-sections” — well yes, this also fits the evidence that even in the least “scissor-happy” hospitals, C-section rates are usually about 20-25%. Plus, did any of those friends decide to give birth in a hospital because their pregnancies had risk factors that made it unwise to give birth at home? Yes? Oh, so after being told that their pregnancy was more likely to require intervention … it required intervention. Duh! Totally anecdotal!

    Then there were the grayer area comments:
    “I / my friend was low-risk and something went horribly wrong at my / their homebirth” — while still anecdotal, what is interesting about these is that they were over-represented compared to the “I had a homebirth and everything was fine” anecdotes. Which makes some sense if you think about the likely mindset of someone who feels that they made a bad choice and would like others to have the wisdom of their experience — but of course it would be only anecdotal to make an observation about the relative ratio of the “it was fine” vs. “it turned out awfully” comments.
    “I / my friend was low-risk and something went horribly wrong at the hospital, I / they were so glad to be there and therefore be here today” — again, totally anecdotal, possibly emotionally motivated in terms of relative ratio of posts, can’t take anything away here.

    Although still anecdotal, what was very interesting in their absence were examples of the following comments:

    “I / my friend was low risk and something went horribly wrong at their hospital birth and they died anyway” (although we do know this happens) and “I / my friend had a terrible emergency during a home birth but everything turned out just fine”.

    What I would take away from this — while thoroughly agreeing with your original point that most people do not understand that the plural of anecote is not data — is that if you are careful in your interpretation, and remember always to consider the source, anecdotal does not necessarily equal meaningless.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Sensibly Speaking Podcast #67: There is No Substitute for Critical Thinking - The Sensibly Speaking Podcast

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