Supplemental: Creating our latest Perfect Example!

MONDAY, JULY 27, 2015

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.

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.
To watch the whole segment, click here.

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—

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 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.

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.


  1. Since holding panel discussions about "African-Americans who do not get the benefit of their humanity" makes great copy for CNN, they should run an expose on modern-day cannibalism and slavery in the Congo. These are real people whose #livesmatter. Would that not play well to their audience overwrought with concern for marginalized groups?

    1. Better yet, why don't you do it from a first-person perspective, as a public service.

  2. Bob too is looking for his perfect example. He thought he found one.

    Bakari Sellers! "That said, in the highlighted statement, he almost seemed to imply" exactly what Bob needed if almost seeming implications will do the trick for you.

    But wait, along comes Neera Tanden!!! Finally Bob found someone who said something foolish enough that Bob can use it to almost seem to imply all black people and all liberals are really in their dumb, lazy hearts thinking the very same thing.

    Because they are really...all alike. Except they are cute as kids. Liberals, we mean.

    1. Stupid trolls don't understand implication.

    2. And a lazy troll will not take the steps seemingly needed to find out what something seems to imply.

      Therefore, that nearly suggests the troll is a possible cinch to be lazy and dumb, which may probably predict the troll, if not a card carrying a member of a known Tribal organization, is at least pleased when not hearing facts which disappear. We don't want the smoking bomb to be an "R" gun.

    3. Neera is a person of color, but she is not black.

  3. Given the recent string of serial killings of escorts, women have a strong claim to becoming the next hashtag, if anyone cared about women being killed as the result of domestic violence or raped and killed by sexual predators. Women's lives matter too. So I do find it a little offensive when a bigger fuss is made about a statistically smaller problem and such absolute statements are made about those hash tags.

  4. So, Digby quotes Dorothy Rabinowitz's remark that you can torture terrorists into telling you everything just by forcing them to listen to Clinton speak. Saying "She seems nice."

    This is how Trump (or Walker or Jeb) gets elected. Because we're too stupid not to assassinate our most viable candidate. Clinton gave a talk on renewable energy and commentators thought it was clever to explain how hard it is for them to care -- but they can all dismiss her suggestions en masse because she didn't ritually denounce Keystone (which is not a policy matter and will be irrelevant by the election).

    But Bernie put more applause lines than Hillary into his La Raza speech, so yay Bernie, he is obvious best suited to be president. Wait, Jeb speaks Spanish. Maybe he should be president. Are we really too stupid to think about substance? But Digby sez Hillary is only leading because she has more campaign experience. Shouldn't the person elected president be the one with job experience?

  5. Nice to see Somerby cuffing aside coverage of a funeral.

    1. Why is a funeral news?

    2. Why are there funerals?

    3. To give closure to friends and family. Why is a funeral news?


    5. Shame on Bob Somerby for using a column about the homegoing of Sandra Bland and the feelings of those mourning her to score points against media figures he dislikes.

  6. I look forward to TDH examining the statistics. He does such a good job with that. The course work on multivariate statistical analysis necessary for a liberal arts degree in the 1960's were known to be tougher than these kids have it today.

    Comedian Somerby has been known for the tricky work needed to compare Outrage by Columnist Marcus over the earning of Candidate Clinton to the salary of a "mid-level infielder."

    I know what a middle infielder is. Second base or shortstop. I am not sure what position a mid-level infielder plays.

    It could refer to the statistics the player has in his performance on the field compared to other players.

    It might refer to the league to which the player is assigned. In such a case the player would be either AA, AAA or Polish League. They are a couple of rough rules of thumb below the Major League Level.

  7. The trick is keeping those people miserable and despairing and angry enough about it to get to the polls and vote Democrat. It's a win win. We white SJW's get to get our feelz on and white Democrats get elected.