Anecdotes and Data
Anecdotes are not data. This is true. No one disputes this.
But, follow this…
Let us suppose that Private Joe has just been issued his shiny new M16A2, and Private Joe takes it to the range. It won’t work. It doesn’t feed. It doesn’t extract or eject or anything. He tries different lubricants. He tries different lots of ammo. He tries different magazines. The bloody thing just won’t work.
So Joe remembers this story, this solitary anecdote, and files it away in his memory. He even tells his friends.
Now let us suppose that Private Bob takes his M16 out to the woods. He cleans it, of course, immaculately, beforehand. It doesn’t work. It won’t work. He cusses, he lubes, he frets, he recleans. It is adamant in not loading, the bolt is stubborn in not moving. He remembers this experience of his.
I think by themselves, these stories, these experiences of Joe and Bob may mean nothing.
But they may mean something.
Many people ‘know’ that the M16 is unreliable at worst, finicky at best, precisely because of their experiences. The anecdotes of Bob, and Joe, and I, and many others accumulate into data. The one anecdote is merely one story.
But hundreds or thousands of anecdotes coalesce into data, they are collected as many different lights prism’d to one beam. Different refractions gathered into a bright truth that cannot be ignored. Alone, they may be worth nothing, together they tell us of how things are.
You see, one story of one M16 means that one man had one bad experience with one gun. Thousands upon thousands of stories of M16s means that it was not one man with one bad gun, it accumulates, it adds up to the belief, correct belief, based on experiential data, that the M16 has given many soldiers nightmares by it’s bad behaviour.
So when we say that ‘anecdotes are not data’, we are only mostly correct. We ignore the fact that they are references which can guide us to truth. When someone tells us that M16s are wonderfully reliable, we try this statement against our experiences, our memories, our anecdotes, to test its veracity. Anecdotes are data, for they are personal bits of data from personal experience.
We add them up to find fact.