CHS Medical Myth Smasher #1 – “The Plural of Anecdote is Data” – Is The Correct Original Quotation

As we have recently been examining the science-free zone over at Science Blogs dot Com, here is another howler from the pseudo-science pseudo-skeptics over there.  Science Blogs dot Com is the home of bloggers like Dr David Gorski and P Z Myers [and he is supposed to be a professor of biology - ha!!].

There are hundreds of references on Science Blogs dot Com to the phrase “the plural of anecdote is not data“.  They repeat it like a religious mantra to slap people down when they give examples of numerous personal experiences.

It seems they do not like the fact that what they seem to think is anecdote – namely the oral testimony of human witnesses – is in fact the primary source of evidence in common law jurisdictions around the world.

So what is the real quote?  And why is it relevant?

You see if human testimony can be reliable – and it can be and is – and it can be tested and is tested – including in Court – then medicine should take note of it.  Medicine should therefore also take note of case series even when based on oral testimony of patients.  You see when you have 10 people coming along separately and independently telling pretty much the same story but of what each of them experienced personally, you have to sit up and take notice.  But drug companies don’t like that.  You see, if medics had to take notice of oral accounts, then it would be much easier to establish a particular drug caused a particular adverse effect.  No fancy tests needed – just careful analysis of the accounts of the victims, their parents and/or physicians and maybe clinical history and any documentary and other witness corroboration.

And yep you guessed it – the pseudo-scientists like Gorski misquote the quote to say it is the opposite of the original quote.

So why would anyone want to do that?  Why would anyone running a set of blogs claiming to provide reliable information on science want to mislead everyone about something so basic?

The correct quote is “The plural of anecdote is data“.

So where is the correct quote recorded?

Raymond Wolfinger’s brilliant aphorism “the plural of anecdote is  data” never inspired a better or more skilled researcher”

Nelson W. Polsby PS, Vol. 17, No. 4. (Autumn, 1984), pp. 778-781. Pg. > 779.

And how do we know that is a true account of the original?  It is confirmed in an exchange of emails between Wolfinger and Fred Shapiro.

 Fred Shapiro happens to be Editor of The Yale Book of Quotations, The Oxford Dictionary of American Legal Quotations, and several other books and was clearly checking his sources.  If you want to see confirmation of the source from an original source document here it is in a listserv post by Shapiro – you can click on the listserv link and look it up yourself:-

Subject: Re: “Plural of anecdote is data” (Ray Wolfinger)
From: Fred Shapiro <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To: American Dialect Society <[log in to unmask]>
Date: Tue, 6 Jul 2004 23:21:27 -0400
Content-Type: TEXT/PLAIN
Parts/Attachments TEXT/PLAIN (34 lines)
On Tue, 6 Jul 2004 [log in to unmask] wrote:

> Nelson W. Polsby PS, Vol. 17, No. 4. (Autumn, 1984), pp. 778-781. Pg.
> 779: Raymond Wolfinger's brilliant aphorism "the plural of anecdote is
> data" never inspired a better or more skilled researcher.

I e-mailed Wolfinger last year and got the following response from him:

"I said 'The plural of anecdote is data' some time in the 1969-70 academic
year while teaching a graduate seminar at Stanford.  The occasion was a
student's dismissal of a simple factual statement--by another student or
me--as a mere anecdote.  The quotation was my rejoinder.
Since then I have missed few opportunities to quote myself.  The only
appearance in print that I can remember is Nelson Polsby's accurate
quotation and attribution in an article in PS:  Political Science and
Politics in 1993; I believe it was in the first issue of the year."

I also e-mailed Polsby, who didn't know of any early printed occurrences.

What is interesting about this saying is that it seems to have morphed
into its opposite -- "Data is not the plural of anecdote" -- in some
people's minds.  Mark Mandel used it in this opposite sense in a private
e-mail to me, for example.

Fred Shapiro

Fred R. Shapiro                             Editor
Associate Librarian for Collections and     YALE DICTIONARY OF QUOTATIONS
  Access and Lecturer in Legal Research     Yale University Press,
Yale Law School                             forthcoming
e-mail: [log in to unmask]     
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9 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on No Compulsory Vaccination and commented:
    This is science – science blogs is myth, belief and pseudo scepticism. The plural of anecdote IS data since that is how research is conducted – you take a whole bunch of anecdotes and from them, you extrapolate an hypothesis first and later, a conclusion. Why don’t these ‘scientists’ get that? They seem to feel that unless they themselves have stated something, it isn’t worth listening to. That isn’t science – that’s just arrogance! Another great blog from CHS.

  2. They are not misquoting Wolfinger, they are correcting his mistake.

    But you knew that.

    [ED: Hey isn't that a coincidence. Twice in a few days we show up Science Blogs making screwy unscientific claims and who turns up here - Peter "Ratbag" Bowditch.

    And for anyone who does not know, Bowditch's fulltime job seems to be going all over the web attacking people all the time.

    His particular forte seems to be making claims which don't stand up and accusing people of being liars. And what is the first thing we see here - "they are correcting his mistake - but you knew that".

    He calls mostly everyone he attacks "ratbags". Don't know how he makes a living doing it. Maybe he is lucky on the Australian lottery - but then he needs to be with all the legal cases he loses. Not sure if Mr Ratbag has ever explained how he makes a living.]

  3. The question of who said what aphorism first is not so important as is the question of which is true: that the plural of anecdote IS data, or is NOT. And I don’t think there’s a simple yes/no answer there.
    The crucial problem in your above is this phrase:
    “if human testimony can be reliable”. Well, sometimes it is, but sometimes it isn’t. Or not believably so.

    Consider the thousands of anecdotal sightings of ufos. I dismiss the lot of them because they can be explained away as the rantings of daft people, and above all because they very peculiarly only started occurring in the 20th century. Why were they never mentioned by Confucius, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, or even Tolstoy?

    On the other hand, consider the thousands of parental reports of autistic children recovering following gfcf or chelation treatment. These might be explainable as rantings of deluded people were it not that they have videos to prove otherwise. So in that case, the plural does indeed amount to data. And it’s helped by the scientific plausibility of the causality. The corporate pseudo-scientists are ignoring this evidence solely because it leads to inconvenient consequences.

    But on the yet another hand, consider the many who say their child became autistic within months/weeks/hours/seconds of them being treated with vaccine x, y, or z. Unlike the reports of ufos we don’t credibly laugh off those reports as delusions. But we do need to bear in mind that they are witnessing to only their own cases (or a few they witness). The question is whether we can rightly INFER that autism is caused by those vaccinations. But thousands of children become autistic at age 2 ANYWAY. And no one is ever going to become obsessed with the idea that their child became vaccinated within hours of becoming autistic. “My child became autistic on the monday morning and within hours she was vaccinated… We KNOW from our own experience that autism causes vaccinations”.

    To resolve that causality question one would need to look at more systematic data. That systematic data appears to exist in the form of numerous charts of the autism increase. To some extent the autism goes up with the vaccinations. But to a greater extent they go different ways, and I find those discrepancies far more telling than any number of “direct witnesses” to a reality of “vaccine damaged” children. And it is easy to see why in this case it is parents, looking for someone to blame, who are over-eager to dismiss the counter-evidence as “merely” epidemiological.

    [ED: "And I don’t think there’s a simple yes/no answer there."

    Yes there is. The answer is "yes".

    You confuse evidence with its reliability. Reliability can be tested. But hey, thanks for your opinions anyway.]

  4. “Bowditch’s fulltime job seems to be going all over the web attacking people all the time.”
    CHS – I wouldn’t let these “skeptic” jokers waste your own time. More and more people can see through their quasi-erudition and they’re also now being terminally racked in the law courts (as detailed at Bolen report).

  5. “Yes there is. The answer is “yes”.”

    A bit baffling there, perhaps you do believe those ufo reports to be credible evidence?

    “You confuse evidence with its reliability. Reliability can be tested.”

    Again I don’t follow where you get this. I raised the matter of credibility of testimony, and also raised the matter of unsound inferences even from collections of credible reports. I don’t see how reliability comes into either.

    [ED: All data is data. You cannot pick and choose the bits you want. But in making decisions based on the various kinds of data you have you test it for its reliability.

    What you don't do is what these jokers say you should do and just dismiss it all out of hand.

    You have come here to propound your ideas on what you believe different kinds of evidence shows regarding the causes of autistic conditions. That is up to you.

    But regarding human testimony as evidence here is an example.

    A trained observer - a police officer gives evidence in Court of what he saw. The bank teller comes into Court and does the same. Three people who also were in the bank at the time give evidence. Their testimony is tested.

    So none of that is to be taken into account - what is what these people say. It is all anecdote and irrelevant. So we cannot conclude a robbery took place.

    Reductio ad absurdum.]

  6. “[ED: All data is data. You cannot pick and choose the bits you want."

    You are correct, and thus have succinctly identified the reason that anecdoteS do not become data simply by becoming plural. Anecdotes are self selected (and often not randomly selected) pieces of information from a data set on which we have no information. It does not mater how many anecdotes are presented, they do not become data because of shear volume. Without access to the full data set (the actual data), then there is no way to know if the anecdotes are a representative sample (good data) or a skewed sample (bad data).

    And if you think anything that happens in a court can be equated to scientific evidence, then you haven't spent time in a courtroom.

    Happy turkey day

    [ED: Thanks "Captain A". You really don't know what you are talking about do you. Nice try though. Great bit of pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo. Must have drifted here from the SS Science Blogs dot Com.]

  7. When combining your anecdotes to produce your data don’t forget to account for potential sources of error, particularly confounding factors, which might unduly affect the interpretation of results. And make sure you have an adequate sample size.

    There is more science in the little finger nails of David Gorski and PZ Myers than can be found in the entirety of this blog.

    Just because Peter Bowditch offends you it doesn’t mean he is wrong. People spend their free time when away from work doing whatever pleases them. The internet has made it possible for us all to participate in forums all over the world and engage in discussions about our topic of interest for long periods at virtually no cost. I don’t see the relevance of speculating on how Peter Bowditch makes a living.

    I heartily endorse this blog as suitable content for the AVN. Go for it @nocompulsoryvacc.

    [ED: See reductio ad absurdum above.

    So you can endorse whatever you like. It does not detract from human testimony being evidence not anecdote. We all like funny stories told to us by cab drivers but evidence is evidence and funny stories in cabs are funny stories. We can all tell the difference. Got it? Nope - never mind.

    And thus Gorski and Myers can have a tonne of little fingers each but that won't make Science Blogs pseudo-science into something it will never be - science.

    And you are a fan of Peter Bowditch too. Well well. That tells everyone reading here what to make of your contributions. Thanks so much for that.]

  8. “A trained observer – a police officer gives evidence in Court of what he saw. The bank teller comes into Court and does the same. Three people who also were in the bank at the time give evidence. Their testimony is tested.”
    “So none of that is to be taken into account – what is what these people say. It is all anecdote and irrelevant. So we cannot conclude a robbery took place.”

    Indeed we cannot conclude that a robbery took place. That’s because all five witnesses could be either lying or mistaken in some way (as per e.g Asch experiment on conformity). In my experience a high proportion of testimony is false testimony to attack innocent victims. (You might be just about able to think of a Dr Wakefield as one example of many.) So from that testimony we may strongly suspect there was a robbery, but we certainly don’t know it.

    And in science we are making grand generalisation conclusions rather than particular instance conclusions, so therefore more credibility of evidence is called for.

    [ED: Thanks very much. You have just demonstrated how unreasonable and unrealistic your position is. Your position is that each of these independent witnesses give evidence that a bank robbery took place and you say you cannot conclude there has been a bank robbery because they all could be lying.

    On that basis we could all be being lied to about the Moon and that it is all made of green cheese.

    What a bizarre position you take. Wholly unrealistic.

    You say "In my experience a high proportion of testimony is false testimony to attack innocent victims."

    How truly strange.]

  9. “You have just demonstrated how unreasonable and unrealistic your position is.”

    Not at all unreasonable. On the contrary, your reply demonstrates an inability to understand the difference between proof (an absolute thing) and compelling evidence (which is non-absolute).

    ” Your position is that each of these independent witnesses give evidence..”

    Who says the witnesses are independent? Very often a gang of nasties (or just fools believing one anothers’ “knowledge”, or just conforming as per Asch experiment) combine together to give a collection of matching testimonies. That’s why it is so important that witnesses do not get to confer before police interview them.

    I did go out of my way to explain to you in the following words:

    “So from that testimony we may strongly suspect there was a robbery, but we certainly don’t know it.”

    You seem to think that you can somehow “know” that none of a group of witnesses are false. How?

    I think you need to stop to reflect and see that there can be no number of witnesses that enable you to KNOW something beyond doubt (rather than have compellingly strong suspicion). A long-understood principle of science is that nothing can be proven, only things can be disproven. Apparently you have some alternative philosophy instead.

    [ED: Thanks Robin. You make up untenable positions to support your untenable views.

    You take this position because you want to claim that the testimony of independent eye witnesses can never prove anything.

    That is clearly not rational.

    You say "who says the witnessess are independent" - that is the factual position upon which the example given is based. We can take that further because it is possible to demonstrate and prove that witnesses are independent of each other.

    So in this example it is part of the facts the example is based upon.

    But you choose to ignore all that.

    You are so unreasonable that you take a given example and because you do not like the result, you change it to something different.

    You can pretend as much as you like that independent witnesses are not independent. You can pretend they actually know each other. You can pretend they made up their evidence to pretend a bank robbery took place. You say the bank robbery did not. You say this is all an elaborate conspiracy by all these people who did not know each other. You say this is to frame a perfectly innocent member of the public. You say that member of the public is not a bank robber.

    You say the police and the bank's management and officials have all also therefore conspired together to get a perfectly innocent member of the public convicted of a bank robbery which did not take place.

    Robin, why do you not say that the witnesses are all mentally deranged to try to get out of the consequences of the example given instead of saying they are all conspiratorial liars? That also would not work as that is testable.]

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