Is data the plural of anecdote?

I seem to hear this intriguing quote everywhere these days.

The plural of anecdote is not data.

There is certainly one website that traces it back to Raymond Wolfinger, a political scientist from Berkeley, who claims to have said sometime around 1969 to 1970:

The plural of anecdote is data.

So, which is it?

Anecdote

My Concise Oxford English Dictionary (“COED”) defines “anecdote” as:

Narrative … of amusing or interesting incident.

Wiktionary gives a further alternative definition.

An account which supports an argument, but which is not supported by scientific or statistical analysis.

Edward Jenner by James Northcote.jpg

It’s clear that anecdote itself is a concept without a very exact meaning. It’s a story, not usually reported through an objective channel such as a journalism, or scientific or historical research, that carries some implication of its own unreliability. Perhaps it is inherently implausible when read against objective background evidence. Perhaps it is hearsay or multiple hearsay.

The anecdote’s suspect reliability is offset by the evidential weight it promises, either as a counter example to a cherished theory or as compelling support for a controversial hypothesis. Lyall Watson’s hundredth monkey story is an anecdote. So, in eighteenth century England, was the folk wisdom, recounted to Edward Jenner (pictured), that milkmaids were generally immune to smallpox.

Data

My COED defines “data” as:

Facts or impormation, esp[ecially] as basis for inference.

Wiktionary gives a further alternative definition.

Pieces of information.

Again, not much help. But the principal definition in the COED is:

Thing[s] known or granted, assumption or premise from which inferences may be drawn.

The suggestion in the word “data” is that what is given is the reliable starting point from which we can start making deductions or even inductive inferences. Data carries the suggestion of reliability, soundness and objectivity captured in the familiar Arthur Koestler quote.

Without the little hard bits of marble which are called “facts” or “data” one cannot compose a mosaic …

Yet it is common knowledge that “data” cannot always be trusted. Trust in data is a recurring theme in this blog. Cyril Burt’s purported data on the heritability of IQ is a famous case. There are legions of others.

Smart investigators know that the provenance, reliability and quality of data cannot be taken for granted but must be subject to appropriate scrutiny. The modern science of Measurement Systems Analysis (“MSA”) has developed to satisfy this need. The defining characteristic of anecdote is that it has been subject to no such scrutiny.

Evidence

Anecdote and data, as broadly defined above, are both forms of evidence. All evidence is surrounded by a penumbra of doubt and unreliability. Even the most exacting engineering measurement is accompanied by a recognition of its uncertainty and the limitations that places on its use and the inferences that can be drawn from it. In fact, it is exactly because such a measurement comes accompanied by a numerical characterisation of its precision and accuracy, that  its reliability and usefulness are validated.

It seems inherent in the definition of anecdote that it should not be taken at face value. Happenstance or wishful fabrication, it may not be a reliable basis for inference or, still less, action. However, it was Jenner’s attention to the smallpox story that led him to develop vaccination against smallpox. No mean outcome. Against that, the hundredth monkey storey is mere fantastical fiction.

Anecdotes about dogs sniffing out cancer stand at the beginning of the journey of confirmation and exploitation.

Two types of analysis

Part of the answer to the dilemma comes from statistician John Tukey’s observation that there are two kinds of data analysis: Exploratory Data Analysis (“EDA”) and Confirmatory Data Analysis (“CDA”).

EDA concerns the exploration of all the available data in order to suggest some interesting theories. As economist Ronald Coase put it:

If you torture the data long enough, it will confess.

Once a concrete theory or hypothesis is to mind, a rigorous process of data generation allows formal statistical techniques to be brought to bear (“CDA”) in separating the signal in the data from the noise and in testing the theory. People who muddle up EDA and CDA tend to get into difficulties. It is a foundation of statistical practice to understand the distinction and its implications.

Anecdote may be well suited to EDA. That’s how Jenner successfully proceeded though his CDA of testing his vaccine on live human subjects wouldn’t get past many ethics committees today.

However, absent that confirmatory CDA phase, the beguiling anecdote may be no more than the wrecker’s false light.

A basis for action

Tukey’s analysis is useful for the academic or the researcher in an R&D department where the environment is not dynamic and time not of the essence. Real life is more problematic. There is not always the opportunity to carry out CDA. The past does not typically repeat itself so that we can investigate outcomes with alternative factor settings. As economist Paul Samuelson observed:

We have but one sample of history.

History is the only thing that we have any data from. There is no data on the future. Tukey himself recognised the problem and coined the phrase uncomfortable science for inferences from observations whose repetition was not feasible or practical.

In his recent book Strategy: A History (Oxford University Press, 2013), Lawrence Freedman points out the risks of managing by anecdote “The Trouble with Stories” (pp615-618). As Nobel laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman has investigated at length, our interpretation of anecdote is beset by all manner of cognitive biases such as the availability heuristic and base rate fallacy. The traps for the statistically naïve are perilous.

But it would be a fool who would ignore all evidence that could not be subjected to formal validation. With a background knowledge of statistical theory and psychological biases, it is possible to manage trenchantly. Bayes’ theorem suggests that all evidence has its value.

I think that the rather prosaic answer to the question posed at the head of this blog is that data is the plural of anecdote, as it is the singular, but anecdotes are not the best form of data. They may be all you have in the real world. It would be wise to have the sophistication to exploit them.

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