Distortionary Anecdotalism

Beware the potential for an anecdote to deceive, distort, jump to a conclusion, or provide an easy way out. From neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky:

Every good journalist knows [the power of anecdotalism] — start an article with statistics about foreclosure rates or feature a family victimized by some bank? No brainer. Display maps showing the magnitudes of refugees flowing out of Darfur or the face of one starving orphan in a camp? Obvious choice. Galvanize the readership.

But anecdotalism is potentially a domain of distortion as well. Absorb the lessons of science and cut saturated fats from your diet, or cite the uncle of the spouse of a friend who eats nothing but pork rinds and is still pumping iron at age 110? Depend on one of the foundations of the 20th century’s extension of life span and vaccinate your child, or obsess over a National Enquirer-esque horror story of one vaccination disaster and don’t immunize? I shudder at the current potential for another case of anecdotalism — I write four days after the Arizona shooting of Gabby Giffords and 19 other people by Jared Loughner. As of this writing, experts such as the esteemed psychiatrist Fuller Torrey are guessing that Loughner is a paranoid schizophrenic. And if this is true, this anecdotalism will give new legs to the tragic misconception that the mentally ill are more dangerous than the rest of us.


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