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? rbrenLTIDjeuixZNxFMQNner@ChacyqGawplFofYMeBNMoCanyon.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.
More articles on Conflict Management:
- Deniable Intimidation
- Some people achieve or maintain power by intimidating others in deniable ways. Too often, when intimidators succeed, their success rests in part on our unwillingness to resist, or on our lack of skill. By understanding their tactics, and by preparing responses, we can deter intimidators.
- On Organizational Coups d'Etat
- If your boss is truly incompetent, or maybe even evil, organizing a coup d'etat might have crossed your mind. In most cases, it's wise to let it cross on through, all the way. Think of alternative ways out.
- A Critique of Criticism: Part II
- To make things better, we criticize, but we often miss the mark. We inflict pain without meaning to, and some of that pain comes back to us. How can we get better outcomes, while reducing the risks of inflicting pain?
- How Targets of Bullies Can Use OODA: Part I
- Most targets of bullies just want the bullying to stop, but most bullies don't stop unless they fear for their own welfare if they continue the bullying. To end the bullying, targets must turn the tables.
- Reframing Hurtful Dismissiveness
- Targets of dismissive remarks often feel that their concerns are being judged as unimportant, which can be painful when their concerns are real. But there is an alternative to pain. It requires a little skill and discipline, but it can work.
See also Conflict Management and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 14: Contextual Causes of Conflict: Part II
- Too often we assume that the causes of destructive conflict lie in the behavior or personalities of the people directly participating in the conflict. Here's Part II of an exploration of causes that lie elsewhere. Available here and by RSS on October 14.
- And on October 21: Managing Wishful Thinking Risk
- When things go wrong, and we look back at how we got there, we must sometimes admit to wishful thinking. Here's a framework for managing the risk of wishful thinking. Available here and by RSS on October 21.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates.
Contact Rick for details at rbrenAgRgmOotWFmqEPixner@ChacirSDQDugbauqqsXjoCanyon.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: The Organizational Politics of Risk Management
- 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 organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. We'll use the history of this event to explore lessons in risk management, its application to organizational efforts, and how workplace politics enters the mix. A fascinating and refreshing look at risk management from the vantage point of history and workplace politics. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- Team Development for Leaders
- Teams at work are often teams in name only — they're actually just groups. True teams are able to achieve much higher levels of performance than groups can. In this program, Rick Brenner shows team leads and team sponsors the techniques they need to form their groups into teams, and once they are teams, how to keep them there. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- Managing in Fluid Environments
- Most people now work in environments that can best be characterized as fluid, because they're subject to continual change. We never know whats coming next. In such environments, managing — teams, projects, groups, departments, or the enterprise — often entails moving from surprise to surprise while somehow staying almost on track. It's a nerve-wracking existence. This program provides numerous tools that help managers who work in fluid environments. Read more about this program. Here are some upcoming dates for this program: