Anecdotes and Refutations
by Rick Brenner
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 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. Top Next Issue
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!
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More articles on Conflict Management:
- Hurtful Clichés: Part I
- Much of our day-to-day conversation consists of harmless clichés: "How goes it?" or "Nice to meet you." Some other clichés aren't harmless, but they're so common that we use them without thinking. Maybe it's time for some thought.
- Responding to Threats: Part II
- When an exchange between individuals, or between an individual and a group, goes wrong, threats often are either the cause or part of the results. If we know how to deal with threats — and how to avoid and prevent them — we can help keep communications creative and constructive.
- How Workplace Bullies Use OODA: Part II
- Workplace bullies who succeed in carrying on their activities over a long period of time are intuitive users of Boyd's OODA model. Here's Part II of an exploration of how bullies use the model.
- When the Chair Is a Bully: Part II
- Assertiveness by chairs of meetings isn't a problem in itself, but it becomes problematic when the chair's dominance deprives the meeting of contributions from some of its members. Here's Part II of our exploration of the problem of bully chairs.
- Rapid-Fire Attacks
- Someone asks you a question. Within seconds of starting to reply, you're hit with another question, or a rejection of your reply. Abusively. The pattern repeats. And repeats again. And again. You're being attacked. What can you do?
See also Conflict Management and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming April 29: Quips That Work at Work: Part II
- Humor, used effectively, can defuse tense situations. Here's Part II of a set of guidelines for using humor to defuse tension and bring confrontations, meetings, and conversations back to a place where thinking can resume. Available here and by RSS on April 29.
- And on May 6: Compulsive Talkers at Work:Part I
- Incessant, unending talking about things that the listener doesn't care about, already knows about, or can do nothing about is an irritating behavior that harms both talker and listener. What can we do about this? Available here and by RSS on May 6.
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