“Fear plus ignorance shouldn’t equal public policy.” – Adam Eisgrau, American Library Association legislative counsel
All Posts by Bob Lewis
Anecdotes vs statistics – it isn’t a fair fight (first appeared in InfoWorld)
Journalists and professional marketers know that if all the statistics in the universe were piled in a stack, the whole awesome mass of them would lack the persuasive punch of a single anecdote. Why? Because most people, for most issues, make decisions emotionally and use logic to justify their emotional decision.
Anecdotes appeal to the emotions. Statistics appeal to reason. It’s not a fair fight.
Think about your organizational rival in the next cubicle. He picked the help desk problem tracking system your organization uses, and it’s a disaster. And the clod chose it because the sales rep happened to be pretty, and he’s having marital problems. If he’d looked at the performance statistics, industry ratings, and other objective facts instead, he wouldn’t have made such a bad choice.
We all know of stories like this, and they prove my point, don’t they?
Actually, they don’t. I just used an anecdote to “prove” my point. I haven’t proven anything. If I’d said, “The Farfinkel Institute just released a study showing that 74% of all product decisions do not include a fact-gathering phase,” I’d have proved my point (or the Farfinkel Institute would have proven it). Of course, you’d have fallen asleep in the middle of my explanation.
Next time you listen to a political debate, keep your anecdote-detectors on full scan. No matter what the issue, you’re more likely to hear illustrative stories than statistical facts in our marketing-driven policy dialogs.
Yes, I know what Mark Twain said about lies, damned lies and statistics. Yes, people can contrive misleading statistics. That’s nothing compared to their ability to script tailored anecdotes. Think of it this way: an anecdote is just a statistic with a sample size of one. You can “prove” anything at all that way.
We fall for this stuff all the time. Want an example? How much time, energy, and budget have you expended on disaster recovery planning and virus protection? Compare that to the time, energy and budget you’ve spent researching hardware design problems and software bugs, in implementing preventive maintenance problems, and in instituting administrative quality assurance programs.
Pause to reflect on this question before continuing. Then consider the following two items:
Item #1: Ontrack Data Recovery (the gods of pulling data off of trashed hard drives) recently published a study attributing 44% of all problems to hardware problems, 32% to system administration mistakes, 14% to software bugs, and 7% to computer viruses, and 3% to natural disasters. (Reported by Investors Business Daily, 9/18/96, summarized in Edupage.)
Item #2: In a recent editorial, BugNet (www.bugnet.com), made a similar point, demonstrating that problems from software bugs are 100 times more prevalent than problems from viruses.
(Why the discrepancy between the two reports? Ontrack only counted episodes leading to data loss, while BugNet tallied all problems.)
Do these two items lead you to think your efforts may be misplaced? Good. Without a doubt, computer viruses have been overhyped as a threat. They’re characterized as digital AIDS or Ebola, when in fact, as with biological viruses, most cause minor, annoying symptoms – computer colds and flu.
(These statistics, of course, don’t reveal the overall seriousness of the different threats. Natural disasters, for example, may only contribute to 3% of all episodes of data loss, but I’d bet they contribute to more business failures than all of the others put together. That makes business recovery planning worthwhile regardless of its statistical rank. Statistics devised by other people often won’t serve your purposes, which was Mark Twain’s point.)
Don’t fall for manipulative opinion-shapers who use story-telling as a substitute for facts. On the other hand, when you’re trying to persuade, make sure you do illustrate your points with examples that add some punch to your dry statistics. You need to engage both halves of your audience’s brain. That’s a matter of clarity, not distortion.