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
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Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming November 26: Ten Approaches to Managing Project Risks: Part II
- Managing risk entails coping with unwanted events that might or might not happen, and which can be costly if they do happen. Here's Part II of our exploration of coping strategies for unwanted events. Available here and by RSS on November 26.
- And on December 3: Ten Approaches to Managing Project Risks: Part III
- Project risk management strategies are numerous, but these ten strategies are among the most common. Here are the last three of the ten strategies in this little catalog. Available here and by RSS on December 3.
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