Anecdotal evidence is manipulative and misleading.
One Raindrop Doesn’t Make a Rainstorm
For those who didn’t vote for President Trump, watching his border speech last week was like watching the final scene in a horror movie. Would the victim flee up the stairs to certain doom or out the front door to safety?
In a pleasant surprise, it was the front door.
President Trump sounded relatively presidential for a change. Which is good news considering that everyone in Washington, and reporting about Washington, needs to tone down the rhetoric just a bit.
He read from a teleprompter what was obviously a professionally written speech, he seemed calm and determined.
He used anecdotal evidence, which is great news for anyone who spent 2018 desperately wishing that the left-leaning in the press, and on their social media feeds, would please learn what anecdotal evidence means and stop confusing it with actual evidence. Donald Trump, the anecdotal president.
Anecdotal evidence goes like this:
“An illegal immigrant robbed and killed a mother of three. See, evidence that illegal immigrants are bad.”
Except it usually goes in the reverse:
“Illegal immigrants are bad, this story about an illegal immigrant who robbed and killed a mother of three is evidence.”
Problem is, confirmation bias is at work.
Anecdotal Evidence, Meet Confirmation Bias
Confirmation bias means that you greatly prefer, and tend to seek out, information that reinforces your worldview and belief-system: To the exclusion of everything else.
If you believe something is true, you will actively seek out and focus on information that confirms that belief. You are even more likely to remember things you come across that confirm your bias, and actively forget anything that doesn’t.
For instance, if you believe that illegal immigrants are dangerous criminals, news stories about crimes committed by illegal immigrants will stick out like a sore thumb to you amid the hundreds of headlines, local crime stories and news feeds.
Your brain, that amazing, pattern-making machine, knows just where to file that information- like with like. If you believe something, your brain is so amazing that it will help find only the right pieces of information for the puzzle you are trying to make into the perfect picture of your belief.
That doesn’t make it true.
Plus, anecdotal evidence is a cheap shot. It’s meant to be an emotional gut punch.
The amazing illogical duo of anecdotal evidence and confirmation bias works the other way, too. The dangers of anecdotal evidence: The evidence we most reply on is often unreliable.
An example of an Obamacare success story isn’t evidence that the Affordable Care Act was a success any more than an Obamacare horror story is evidence that the Affordable Care Act was a failure.
If you believe that immigrants are good, you will ignore stories to the contrary. That is, unless you are so insulated inside an echo-chamber of like-minded people that you don’t even see such stories in the first place.
For instance, in places like Washington, D.C. and its Maryland suburbs, members of the violent gang MS-13, who usually enter the country illegally, are a legitimate threat to the community.
And no community is more threatened by MS-13 than poor immigrant communities. MS-13 almost strictly preys on their neighbors and especially, law-abiding, hard-working immigrants with questionable legal status because they won’t call the police.
Vigilance against anecdotal is important, because our brains are naturally good at making patterns, even when no pattern exists. That is why we like stories so much.
The Human Mind is Wired for Story
Thinking anecdotally comes naturally to human beings. Thinking scientifically, not so much.
That is why the story of a single person, or family, fleeing a war-zone or suffering in the aftermath of a natural disaster is more compelling and heart-wrenching than the statistical fact of how many people were injured or killed.
One person evokes great emotion and sympathy; 100,000 people barely register. This is not logic.
Behold the power of the human mind. Our mental constructs help us make sense of the world, a world full of forces we can’t directly perceive with our senses and a burgeoning human family that has grown well beyond the confines of our community.
One homeless, injured and terrified child fleeing a war-torn nation is given a face and a name and the human mind knows exactly what to do with that information in a societal context; care.
Caring for the young is normal and natural human instinct, our survival as a species depends upon it.
Millions of homeless, injured and terrified children suffering war and poverty around the world almost arrest the human mind completely; we simply cannot form a mental construct around that, it can’t be made sense of in a societal context, in the context of a community.
Caring for a million young breaks the natural and normal human survival instinct. It can’t be done, so humans simply aren’t wired for it.
That is why these stories are important to human consciousness: Stories are how human beings make sense of the world.
But as important as they are, when it comes to policy-making and governance in the U.S., and the obligation incumbent on the media to report the actual news so that voters and lawmakers have the information they need to make sound decisions, stories are the enemy.
Anecdotal Evidence is a Scientific Problem
It is also a problem that prevents its own solution, clouding and muddying the waters around the very issue it is usually touted out to help.
Good policymaking must respond to an actual need; not a perceived one. Sound governance needs data. How Anecdotal Evidence Can Undermine Scientific Results: Why subjective anecdotes often trump objective data.
Lawmakers need to know statistically how many crimes, and of what variety, are being committed by people who have entered the country illegally. There must be some effort to weed out those who did not come to the U.S. illegally to make a better life, but in the commission of a serious crime.
Which does happen: Drug smuggling, racketeering and human trafficking.
Anecdotal Evidence Hurts People
Anecdotal evidence often hurts the very people it purports to help.
Not every family who experiences the terrible grief of losing a loved one to violence wants to be used as a political party mascot or pawn.
The case of a young woman’s death at the hands of a man in the U.S. illegally is a perfect example. Mollie Tibbetts’s mother took in child of Mexican immigrants after murder suspect’s arrest.
This young woman’s mother is so determined to distance herself from any attempt to politicize her daughter’s murder for the purposes of painting immigrants as dangerous criminals, she has adopted a child of 17.
Mollie Tibbett’s mother, bless her, is right; all Mollie’s tragic death can tell us is that the person who murdered her daughter, is a murderer. Nothing more. Every person in the U.S. illegally, every person from the perpetrator’s country of origin; these people haven’t been implicated in Mollie’s death in any way.
Stop Using Anecdotal Evidence
Now that Donald Trump is President, and since the mainstream media hates Donald Trump with the fire of a thousand suns, hopefully it will finally stop using anecdotal evidence, too.
Talk about your own experience. Anything else is only a story about a story.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)