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In praise of anecdotal evidence

(Washington Post photo illustration using iStock image)
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There are few more damning responses to a new study or book or proposal than to say that it relies on “anecdotal” evidence — implying not just that the underlying idea lacks seriousness and objectivity, but that the author is lazy or even untrustworthy. Editors also tend to recoil from anecdotal openings for news stories (in part because most anecdotal ledes are awful), and book critics love to display their smartypants-ness by dissing some new volume as anecdotal. (I must confess, I did this just last month.)

Nicholas Carr, author of “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains” (2010), wants to rehabilitate the anecdote. So when asked him and other thinkers to answer the question “What scientific idea is ready for retirement?” he had his answer. In “This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress,” a collection of 175 short essays from top thinkers, Carr makes his case against anti-anecdotalism in two sharp paragraphs:

We live anecdotally, proceeding from birth to death through a series of incidents, but scientists can be quick to dismiss the value of anecdotes. “Anecdotal” has become something of a curse word, at least when applied to research and other explorations of the real. A personal story, in this view, is a distraction or distortion, something that gets in the way of a broader, statistically rigorous analysis of a large set of observations or a big pile of data. But as this year’s Edge Question makes clear, the line between the objective and the subjective falls short of the Euclidean ideal. It’s negotiable. The empirical, if it’s to provide anything like a full picture, needs to make room for both the statistical and the anecdotal.
The danger in scorning the anecdotal is that science gets too far removed from the actual experience of life, losing sight of the fact that mathematical averages and other such measures are always abstractions. Some prominent physicists have recently questioned the need for philosophy, implying that it’s been rendered obsolete by scientific inquiry. I wonder if that opinion isn’t a symptom of anti-anecdotalism. Philosophers, poets, artists — their raw material includes the anecdote, and they remain, even more so than scientists, our best guides to what it means to exist.

Carr has been on the receiving end of anti-anecdotalism himself. In his New York Times review of Carr’s “The Shallows,” Jonah Lehrer wrote that Carr’s “anecdotal observations” disregard that “the preponderance of scientific evidence suggests that the Internet and related technologies are actually good for the mind.” And Washington Post reviewer Jennifer Howard knocked Carr for not noting that “researchers disagree about how our brains are changing in the digital age and whether that’s a good thing, a bad thing or something in between.”

So, is Carr’s essay above a subtle response to his critics? I don’t think I can base that conclusion on this one short essay — that’s just too anecdotal.

“This Idea Must Die,” edited by John Brockman, is forthcoming from Harper Perennial on Feb. 17.

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