The Anecdotal Fallacy

by Brian 29. August 2015 22:58

Personal bias can hinder our ability to reason through social, political and religious issues. Though the dishonest and unreflective always seem to find a happy union, it is difficult for the honest man to divorce his feelings from the analysis of certain controversial matters. I recently read a personal testimony of police abuse and I was moved by what happened to the couple in the story. The testimony began with an important disclaimer: “What you are about to read is not a philosophical argument. It’s a personal testimony.”  Why mention this? The answer is obvious: A personal testimony is not a philosophical argument, yet in some cases; individual testimonies and anecdotal accounts often become the basis of implicit arguments. This happens not only with prickly political subjects but in apologetics and philosophical discourse. How we deal with personal testimony and anecdotal experience versus cold facts is important. When it comes to sympathy, it should not be so lacking we ignore the former nor so generous we discount the latter.

At eighteen I worked at a fast-food restaurant as a backup manager. I closed the store late one night and was heading home on my motorcycle. It was freezing out and I was still in my uniform without a jacket. I lived only a few minutes away so I figured I could get home quick and warm up. There was no one on the road that night as I pulled out of the parking lot and rolled through a stop sign. I was quickly pulled over by a police patrol officer. A young white guy got out of his car and collected my driver’s license and registration.  I was fully compliant and respectful. The officer noted how cold I was with a grin on his face as he sat in his warm car. About ten minutes went by and he finally got out to issue me a ticket. By this point I was shivering noticeably.  He then told me I could go, but then stopped me at the last moment. He returned to his vehicle to write a protracted second ticket for a burned out light over my license plate. I finally made it home without hypothermia but clearly this heartless officer abused his power. That night for me began a long and negative opinion of law enforcement. I drew a powerful inference from this one experience: Cops were power-hungry jerks. Thirty years and many positive experiences later helped me to shed this sophomoric view.
 
Recent events have conjured disturbing examples of this sort fallacious reasoning. I’m not referring to activists who benefit from the declining relationship between law enforcement and the citizens they protect. Nor am I thinking of the race-baiting profiteers who want to see this as a disproportionately white on black issue. I am not even referring to the ignorant who post unhelpful memes of angry white officers juxtaposed with seemingly innocent black children. Rather it is otherwise reasonable people who jump on the bandwagon after reading a testimonial that caught my attention. Like I said, I read the testimony and it was powerful. But should sympathy deter us from the most basic questions? Is it the case law enforcement is abusing their power more today than ever?  Is this abuse systemic and racially-motivated? The honest answer is that we do not know based solely on what is portrayed in the media or what can be known through a handful of personal testimonies. To claim otherwise would be to commit the anecdotal fallacy.
 
Here is what we do know: We have a few cases where a black person is killed during interaction with law enforcement. In some of these there is police abuse. In others, the actions taken by law enforcement were justified. We have a handful of personal testimonies that have come forward since awareness has been raised. We have a few high-profile cases over the past year. Time magazine lists 14 since Zimmerman shot Trevon Martin in 2012. The justice department, over a six year period, recorded about 4,800 arrest-related deaths out of a whopping 98 million arrests (less than 0.005%). Of the 800 incidents per year, how many are the result of what a fair interpretation of the law would deem an abuse of power? And of those, how many were racially motivated? We don’t know! Nor do we know if this is a worsening or improving situation. What is the baseline? How do we know abuse of power is not being effectively punished? How do we know the problem is worse for law enforcement than it is for other professions where the citizen’s life is on the line? In other words, is this a general problem of evil or a problem with a particular profession? At over 200K per year deaths from medical malpractice; are doctors killing blacks disproportionately by giving them inferior care? Are firefighters responding to fires in black homes slower than whites? Do military leaders send blacks into more harmful scenarios than whites due to racial bias? The bottom line is we do not know if abuse of power in the US, racially motivated or not, has been worsening, getting better or staying the same. Based on my own experience and those that I’ve spoken with, the level of racial hatred has gotten far better over the years. But of course to make an argument solely on this evidence would be to commit the very same anecdotal fallacy.
 
I am using this recent issue as an example of how highly-charged matters are susceptible to an improper inference from personal testimony and anecdotal evidence. Of course there are plenty of other scenarios one could point to including ones falling into evangelism and apologetics. A neighbor says: “I had a bad experience in church once” and therefore “all Christians are judgmental.” Or a coworker says, “I heard this preacher try to make a mockery of science” therefore “faith and science will never reconcile.” Even though these arguments are obviously weak and commit the anecdotal fallacy; this does not mean we jump right to pointing out their error. We ought to first listen with a sympathetic ear and have an honest conversation. This includes being willing to consider possibilities suggested by their poor argument. Perhaps they are on to something – perhaps not. Level-headed discourse with a desire to listen to others combined with a fair and objective inclusion of the facts is more likely to develop mutual agreement and understanding. All of this said however, posting irrational innuendos or ludicrous memes on Facebook merely creates an environment where the anecdotal fallacy flourishes.

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About the author

I am a Christian, husband, father of two daughters, an owner of ISC, lead architect of MapDotNet, armchair apologist and philosopher, writer of hand-crafted electronic music, and a kid around anything that flies (rockets, planes, copters, boomerangs, hot air baloons, lawn furniture)

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