Anecdata

Posted by: Jane Davidson

Looking for a new buzzword to toss into the conversation next time you are socializing with your favorite evaluators or clients? How about this one:

anecdata (noun). information which is presented as if it is based on serious research but is in fact based on what someone thinks is true

Here’s a snippet of what the MacMillan Dictionary’s Buzzword section has to say about anecdata:

“It’s probably fair to say that the majority of us either read or hear some kind of anecdata on a daily basis. It’s difficult to imagine how the wheels of the media – broadcast or published – would keep turning without a generous helping of anecdata to keep the stories flowing. Though a proportion of the information we hear or read about will be based on actual facts and truths, it’s unrealistic to expect everything reported to be grounded in solid and indisputable evidence, and so other stimuli, like individual experiences or perceptions, inevitably inform what’s presented….”

Newscaster in Television Studio

“… The slippery thing about anecdata, however, is that it takes on the guise of substantiated fact, ostensibly to prove a point or make a prediction about something, but is in reality pretty tenuous and based on casual evidence or experience. The term anecdata is therefore often used with humorous or even pejorative overtones – a kind of way of signalling that such information should be viewed with caution because it may be less reliable than it appears.

… The term anecdata first began to appear in the early nineties and is a blend of the noun data and the adjective anecdotal meaning ‘based on personal experience rather than on facts that can be checked’.”

It reminds me of another quote I heard recently: “The plural of anecdote is not data.”

We do need to be a bit careful with ideas like this because they are sometime thinly disguised attempts to denigrate qualitative evidence (which is often dismissed as ‘anecdotal’) based on two assumptions:

  1. qualitative (and, for that matter, evaluative) facts cannot be checked (they most certainly can)
  2. quantitative evidence has a higher ‘truth value’ than qualitative evidence

Evidence literacy is actually a serious issue, and something we need to ensure every young person develops as early as possible. The media is getting more skilled at spinning anecdata to look like legitimate, well-grounded evidence, and most people lack the critical thinking skills they need to spot the difference between real evidence and the rest.

Some of my recent work has been in support of a major global initiative to fundamentally rethink learning and teaching. The basic premise is this: Gone are the days when it makes sense to have students memorize facts and regurgitate them in standardized tests. It’s boring, it’s pointless, and it doesn’t leave them able to “hit the ground running” in their careers.

These days, just about any information we need can be looked up instantly on smartphones, tablets, or PCs. The issue is not knowing information; it’s being able to find it and – most importantly – critically evaluate it, to tell whether it is well-based or not, to distinguish solid evidence from anecdata, to spot flawed assumptions and logical leaps.

So, a question for you, fellow evaluators: What role should we be playing in getting critical and evaluative thinking into the school curriculum?

Thoughts? Chime in with a comment at the bottom of the post!

2 comments to Anecdata

  • Salaam Jane,
    Thanks for this anecdote! I completely agree whit your story. Especially for this:
    “Some of my recent work has been in support of a major global initiative to and fundamentally rethink learning teaching. The basic premise is this: Gone are the days when it makes sense to have students memorize facts and regurgitate them in standardized tests. It’s boring, it’s pointless, and it doesn’t leave them able to “hit the ground running” in their careers.”
    And my point for your question is: We must go to the side of contemporary child.

  • Irene Guijt

    Hi Jane

    I can see how the term anecdote may help people to be careful with what they hear and what they infer from this.

    But it seems like all anecdotes are being equated with falsehoods and fiction, which is is incorrect and not unhelpful. When one has 2000 ‘anecdotes’ is that then real enough? Or do we need more? Or will less suffice?

    I would like to stop bashing anecdotes and equating them with the notion of ‘never let a good story get in the way of the truth’. They are potentially serious information, just haven’t been validated according to certain norms of science. I fear that the pejorative tone of the ‘anecdata’ term will only reinforce that.

    “Whether we choose to admit it or not, the anecdote continues to be an important engine of novel ideas in medicine.”

    I notice that you caution against dismissing anecdotes, so I propose a conversation about how we can value anecdotes rather than trash them.

    I’m afraid I was too distracted by the anecdote focus to respond to your real question!

    PS My source for the quote: http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pmed.0030423 and http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2528597/