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!
Your comments are welcome
Would you like to see your comments posted here? Send 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.
More articles on Conflict Management
- The Unappreciative Boss
- Do you work for a boss who doesn't appreciate you? Do you feel ignored or excessively criticized? If you do, life can be a misery, if you make it so. Or you can work around it. It's up to you to choose.
- Top Ten Signs of a Blaming Culture
- The quality of an organization's culture is the key to high performance. An organization with a blaming culture can't perform at a high level, because its people can't take reasonable risks. How can you tell whether you work in a blaming culture?
- Ending Conversations
- At times, we need to end the current conversation. It's going nowhere, or we have something important to do, or we just don't want to deal with the other person. Here are some suggestions for ending conversations.
- Peace's Pieces
- Just as important as keeping the peace with your colleagues is making peace again when it has been broken by strife. Nations have peace treaties. People make up. Here are some tips for making up.
- Stalking the Elephant in the Room: Part I
- The expression "the elephant in the room" describes the thought that most of us are thinking, and none of us dare discuss. Usually, we believe that in avoidance lies personal safety. But free-ranging elephants present intolerable risks to both the organization and its people.
See also Conflict Management and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 24: The Perils of Novel Argument
- When people use novel or sophisticated arguments to influence others, the people they're trying to influence are sometimes subject to cognitive biases triggered by the nature of the argument. This puts them at a disadvantage relative to the influencer. How does this happen? Available here and by RSS on December 24
- And on December 31: The Power and Hazards of Anecdotes: Part I
- Anecdotes are short stories — sometimes just a single sentence. They're powerful tools of persuasion, but they can also be dangerous, to both anecdote tellers and anecdote listeners. Available here and by RSS on December 31
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates.
Contact Rick for details at rbrenner@ChacoCanyon.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
- The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
- On 14 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 project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- Human-Centered Risk Management
- Most of us can assess technological risks, but risks related to human behavior tend to resist our best efforts. This session provides a framework for evaluating risks related to the behavior of individuals, teams, organizations and people generally. Human-centered risk differs from technological or market risk, because objective evaluation requires acknowledging personal and organizational limitations and failures. Since some of those limitations and failures might apply to the people assessing the risks, or to their superiors, there's a tendency to deny them or to explain them away. Our approach examines capability, organization, context, risk mitigation, and workplace politics. It has tools for guiding the assessment and management of human-centered risk, and we show how to extend these tools to suit your situation. You'll learn how to identify sources of risk in human behavior; recognize systemic and individual barriers to acknowledging risk; assess the effects of organizational turbulence; determine the risk associated with inappropriate internal risk transfer; estimate the effects of team dysfunction, toxic conflict and turnover; and measure the impact of workplace politics. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- The Politics of Meetings for People Who Hate Politics
- There's a lot more to running an effective meeting than having the right room, the right equipment, and the right people. With meetings, the whole really is more than the sum of its parts. How the parts interact with each other and with external elements is as important as the parts themselves. And those interactions are the essence of politics for meetings. This program explores techniques for leading meetings that are based on understanding political interactions, and using that knowledge effectively to meet organizational goals. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- Cognitive Biases and Workplace Decision-Making
- For most of us, making decisions is a large part of what we do at work. And we tend to believe that we make our decisions rationally, except possibly when stressed or hurried. That is a mistaken belief — very few of our decisions are purely rational. In this eye-opening yet entertaining program, Rick Brenner guides you through the fascinating world of cognitive biases, and he'll give concrete tips to help you control the influence of cognitive biases. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program: