Anecdotes versus statistics: Argument by anecdote can be easy, especially if you get to invent or disappear your facts.
Statistics may tend to be harder. They can also be unsatisfying.
That said, much of our discourse has run on anecdote since the death of Trayvon Martin. We keep inventing Perfect Examples of the conduct we say we loathe. We’ve often done so by making up some of our facts while disappearing others.
We’re now inventing our newest Perfect Example; her name is the late Sandra Bland. In this morning’s New York Times, Charles Blow is still inviting people to think that Bland must have been murdered.
On a journalistic basis, Blow's conduct today is quite amazing. But then, he’s done this sort of thing before. After the death of Trayvon Martin, he often teamed with Lawrence O’Donnell in the invention of facts.
(The Sanford police wouldn’t tell the family for the next three days! Not true, but widely promulgated and treasured.)
When you get to break the rules, it’s fairly easy to keep presenting Perfect Examples. Beyond that, it’s easy to create painful impressions about the frequency with which certain events occur in the wider society.
Anecdotes are easy to play with, especially if you get to invent or massage them. By way of contrast, statistics can be frustrating and hard.
That said, our discourse has been relying on the former; this can often lead to rank abuse of the latter. For an example of what we mean, consider what was said on yesterday’s State of the Union, CNN’s flagship Sunday program.
Jake Tapper is now the program’s host. He spoke with a four-member panel about the Black Lives Matter movement.
Tapper played tape from Candidates Clinton and Bush, then threw to his lone black panelist. This is what was said—good-naturedly, we will add:
TAPPER (7/26/15): Hillary Clinton versus Jeb Bush on the Black Lives Matter movement which has been tripping up Democrats and Republicans on the campaign trail. We're back here with our panel. Let's talk about this.To watch the whole segment, click here.
What’s the right answer, Bakari? I turn to you. You’re African-American! Tell me!
SELLERS: And I wonder why I’m getting this?
TAPPER: Help me out! What’s the right answer on Black Lives Matter? What is supposed to be said by candidates?
SELLERS: Black Lives Matter has an implicit “too” at the end of it. It speaks to a very, very specific pain. When we—it’s more than a slogan.
The problem is that we’ve seen the video of Walter Scott. We’ve seen the video of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, and the list goes on and on and on and on. And you have African-Americans who literally do not get the benefit of their humanity. And that’s a problem.
And so, when you—
You know, in my next interaction, I’m the only person at this table whose next interaction may cause them to be a hash tag. It may be #bakarisellers. And that’s something that we feel. That’s a very deep pain.
Bakari Sellers is 30 years old. He has already served for eight years in the South Carolina House of Delegates, from which he’s now retired.
Sellers offered sensible statements about the “very deep pain” which lies behind the Black Lives movement. As he spoke, he named some well-known recent victims—some famous Perfect Examples from our highly anecdotal discourse.
Sellers is quite impressive. That said, in the highlighted statement, he almost seemed to imply that no one ever gets killed by police except black people.
Sellers almost seemed to imply that. And sure enough! After some discussion about the “Black lives matter” slogan, another panelist came right out and made that as a statement.
That person was Neera Tanden. In this passage, she speaks with S. E. Cupp:
CUPP: I think a lot of people recoil at the idea that when a Democrat says “All lives matter,” and this starts a fight inside the party—Tanden has been president of the Center for American Progress since 2011. She was policy director to Candidate Clinton in 2008. Later, she worked for President Obama.
TAPPER: Which is what happened last week with Martin O’Malley.
CUPP: Yes, with Martin O’Malley. I think that—I think most people react to that and say that’s really silly.
TANDEN: But let me explain why people reacted. And I think it is, we have gone through these incidents, incident after incident, in which African-Americans have died at the hands of police.
And we all see that. We live in this country. And that’s why people are saying, “Black lives matter too.” Black lives matter—
We don’t need to say “All lives matter” because white citizens aren’t dying at the hands of police! And that's why it’s interesting to me that people think there’s something wrong with actually saying— We need to say “black lives matter” because we live in this context in which African-Americans are dying.
Tanden is very prominent. Yesterday, she flatly made this factual statement: “White citizens aren’t dying at the hands of police.”
Maybe she didn’t mean it. But that’s what she actually said, and we will guess that many people actually believe that claim. Anecdotes can create strong impressions—and we’ve been exposed to a single type of anecdote in “incident after incident” in recent years, to borrow Tanden’s language.
Sellers implied it; Tanden stated it. But uh-oh! According to the Washington Post’s compilation, about twice as many white people have been fatally shot by police this year, as compared to blacks.
That’s the Post’s rolling statistic. No one doubts that it’s basically accurate. But yesterday, viewers saw a leading figure make the following statement:
“White citizens aren’t dying at the hands of police.”
A steady drumbeat of anecdotes can create a strong impression. So can crazily inaccurate statistical claims, as we’ll see again tomorrow.
Statistics can be hard to interpret, but anecdotes can be crazy-making, especially when we toy with our facts and limit the types of anecdotes to which we’re exposed.
Anecdotes versus statistics! We’ll examine those two routes to the truth in our afternoon posts all week.