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]