Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 14, Issue 23;   June 4, 2014: Anecdotes and Refutations

Anecdotes and Refutations


In debate and argumentation, anecdotes are useful. They illustrate. They make things concrete. But they aren't proof of anything. Using anecdotes as proofs leads to much trouble and wasted time.
The late Cameron Todd Willingham, wrongfully executed in Texas in 2004 for the murder of his daughters

The late Cameron Todd Willingham, wrongfully executed in Texas in 2004 for the murder of his three young daughters, in a 1991 fire judged to have been set by Willingham. He's shown with his daughter Amber, who died in the fire. After his execution, witnesses recanted their testimony, and evidence was uncovered showing that the fire was accidental, not arson. An order posthumously exonerating Willingham was issued by a Texas judge, but that order was stayed by the Texas Supreme Court.

This case is often cited as an example illustrating the assertion that capital punishment inevitably entails wrongful executions, because no judicial system is perfect. Some supporters of capital punishment dismiss this argument as anecdotal evidence. Such a position is mistaken. This case is not anecdotal evidence of the imperfections of the Texas judicial system. It is instead a counterexample to the claim that the Texas judicial system produces error-free convictions in capital cases. Read more about this case. Photo courtesy camerontoddwillingham.com/.

Alpha and Bravo are debating how to complete their project, given the rumors of coming rounds of "reductions in force," and therefore looming shortages of people to do the work. Alpha says, "I'm worried about resource availability. Bravo replies, "I know, I've heard the same rumors, but I think we'll be OK."

Alpha isn't satisfied. "What about Charlie [the lead on the effort]? He might not be available. His Dad isn't well, and Charlie missed some days last week. Even if his Dad pulls through, I don't think we have his full attention."

Alpha is using an anecdote to make his point. Charlie's situation is an example of Alpha's concern that the project is vulnerable to a risk of staff shortages more general than just Charlie's situation. Alpha actually wants to make arrangements to manage that risk.

Because argument-by-anecdote can't ever prove anything, Alpha hasn't proven that the risk of staff shortage is something that must be addressed. Alpha has merely supplied an example. But the more serious problem with argument-by-anecdote is that it invites refutation-by-anecdote.

Here's how. Bravo replies, "Haven't you heard? Charlie's Dad's surgery was a success! He's already in rehab, and the family is greatly relieved. Charlie is like a new man."

Bravo is refuting Alpha's anecdote with another anecdote, indicating that Charlie will be available and able to focus on the project. But Bravo's anecdote is no more proof of the absence of risk of staff shortage than is Alpha's anecdote proof of the presence of that risk.

Alpha and Bravo can dance like this forever, trading anecdotes and refutations. It's a waste of time, and it leads to bad decisions. What can you do if proof-by-anecdote and refutation-by-anecdote have taken root in your organization?

Talk about the role of anecdotes in argumentation. Define anecdotes as illustrative stories about specific events that might or might not be true.
Identify them
If you use an anecdote to illustrate a point, say so: "I'm using this anecdote as an illustration." If someone else uses an anecdote, and doesn't explicitly say so, anyone else is free to point that out: "I appreciate your offering that anecdote."
Define standards of proof
Explain to everyone Argument-by-anecdote can never
prove anything. It can only disprove
by counterexample, and then
only if validated.
that anecdotes can never, ever, prove anything generally, because they aren't validated, and because they're specific. If an anecdote is true, if might disprove a general assertion, but then we call it a counterexample.
Don't refute anecdotes
Refuting anecdotes doesn't advance the argument, because anecdotes aren't part of the logic. Refuting anecdotes admits them, illicitly, into the logic of the debate. Anecdotes are always illustrations, and that's all they can ever be.

Become an anecdote census-taker. Count examples of anecdotes being used as proof or refutation. If you can't get through a day without observing one or two anecdote incidents, your organization might have a problem. Go to top Top  Next issue: Exasperation Generators: Irrelevant Detail  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbreneexcibyHsNWRKsUbner@ChacaZkeEdEXGNLhRqjPoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Conflict Management:

The Night Café, by Vincent Van Gogh, 1888Changing the Subject: Part II
Sometimes, in conversation, we must change the subject, but we also do it to dominate, manipulate, or assert power. Subject changing — and controlling its use — can be important political skills.
A lunar eclipseMaking Meaning
When we see or hear the goings-on around us, we interpret them to make meaning and significance. Some interpretations are thoughtful, but most are almost instantaneous. Since the instantaneous ones are sometimes goofy or dangerous, here's a look at how we make interpretations.
A polar bear, feeding, on landResponding to Threats: Part III
Workplace threats come in a variety of flavors. One class of threats is indirect. Threateners who use the indirect threats aim to evoke fear of consequences brought about not by the threatener, but by other parties. Indirect threats are indeed warnings, but not in the way you might think.
A man using a chainsawDiscussion Distractions: Part II
Meetings are less productive than they might be, if we could learn to recognize and prevent the most common distractions. Here is Part II of a small catalog of distractions frequently seen in meetings.
John C. Calhoun (1782-1850), seventh Vice President of the United StatesImpasses in Group Decision-Making: Part I
Groups sometimes find that although they cannot agree on the issue at hand in its entirety, they can agree on some parts of it. Yet, they remain stuck, unable to reach a narrow agreement before moving on to the more thorny areas. Why does this happen?

See also Conflict Management and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Feeling shameComing November 2: Shame and Bullying
Targets of bullies sometimes experience intense feelings of shame. Here are some insights that might restore the ability to think, and maybe end the bullying. Available here and by RSS on November 2.
Platypus swimmingAnd on November 9: Solving the Problem of Solving Problems
Problem solving is sometimes difficult when our biases interfere with generating candidate solutions, or with evaluating candidates we already have. Here are some suggestions for dealing with these biases. Available here and by RSS on November 9.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenBllAbArebtxSBoDNner@ChacpQwIeSffLxWAkqyZoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Leading Virtual Meetings for Real Results
LeadiLeading Virtual Meetings for Real Resultsng or participating in virtual meetings — teleconferences, Web conferences, video conferences, and more — is challenging. Miscommunications, misunderstandings, distractions, politics, and interpersonal conflict all thrive in the typical environment of the virtual team. We'll inventory the challenges virtual meeting leaders and participants face, and provide tools for anticipating and addressing them. The focus of this program is practical — attendees will learn concrete techniques for preventing and dealing with the problems that arise in virtual meetings. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many Creating High Performance Virtual Teamspeople experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. Read more about this program. Here are some upcoming dates for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
Please donate!The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Workplace Politics Awareness Month KitIn October, increase awareness of workplace politics, and learn how to convert destructive politics into creative politics. Order the Workplace Politics Awareness Month Kit during October at the special price of USD 29.95 and save USD 10.00! Includes a copy of my tips book 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics which is a value! ! Check it out!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.