Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Anecdotal Evidence

Ingrid has several times remarked to me, “Anecdotes are a lousy basis for public policy.” She knows anecdotal evidence—she's a writer who uses anecdotes as a way of illustrating complex, abstract systems. So, when she talks about anecdotal evidence, I figure she knows whereof she speak.

In public policy, the alternative to anecdotal evidence is statistics and other hard data. So why isn't this evidence universally accepted? Why is anecdotal evidence hard to brush aside?

The conventional reason given by intellectuals and scientists is, because people are idiots. Which is a comforting sort of reason I suppose, if not being an idiot is an important part of your self-image. But it doesn't really quite answer the question.

People gravitate to stories, and lots of people believe personal experience over theory, especially when they are discussing a "territory" they have not themselves explored. This is why stories involving death are so powerful: we aren't going to go there ourselves until we do, and at that point hearing stories about death isn't going to do us a lot of good.

So we have narratives of people dying, and we have narratives of people moving across into what happens after they die. And these narratives are different from "maps" of the afterlife. They are from one individual's point of view and they make no guarantee that your experience will be the same. In fact, some of the most resonant narratives are parallels: X goes to heaven, Y goes to hell. By invoking multiple narratives we give shape to the basic idea of choice.

Alongside these narratives, there are, in fact, maps. All kinds of maps. I'm speaking metaphorically, in that graphic representations are a small subset of the non-narrative descriptions of death and after-death. In fact, many of them are embedded in narrative descriptions—one of the points of the narrative is to get the central character to a point where they can view the structure of after-death, or of the cosmos in general, for themselves. Think Dante. Or think of those ballads like "The House Carpenter" where the hapless person is shown the shores of heaven "where you and I will never be" and the shores of hellfire "where you and I will unite."

Regardless of its pedigree, we are talking about two kinds of evidence. One is narrative: it can be insightful or banal, but it is framed as testimony out of one's journey, whether that frame is reliable or utterly unbelievable. The other is factual: it is a statement of "what is."

So to go back to what Ingrid said, why is one a better basis for public policy than the other?

I think it's basically about scale. Narrative works on an individual basis: in a successful narrative, we imagine ourselves in the story, and can follow a series of actions over time. Narratives are immensely important in understanding how to live. But when one is creating structures for a large number of people, especially when you must include people you are not like (or people who are simply unknown to us), narratives break down.

So it's not the "policy" part that's the problem: actually, narrative provides a pretty good basis for creating personal policy. Maybe that's even its strongest suit. It's the "public" part, because "public" means all the people, including those strange to you.

All of which means creating structures based not on that emotionally "strong force" of narrative flow, but on the "weak force" of reason and description. Which is why advocates love to try and use sad stories to sway voters and their representatives, and why the President always has someone in the balcony at the state of the union to inspire us all. And why Ingrid uses anecdotes to illustrate her points.

The point is not to avoid anecdotes; I think this is the mistake many rationalists make. It's to recognize their limits, and their power. Finding that balance is a hard thing to do—stories have a way of taking over. And to some extent, we need to let them take over. It is what homo sapiens do in order to live happy lives. But we also need to be careful, especially when the limits of our personal experience kick in, not to let anecdotes from within our mortal and limited skin blur what vision we have gained through our measuring and conceptualizing beyond that skin.

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