In Defense of Anecdotal Evidence

“She liked Mr. Walpole’s company, because they could bring their little scraps of scandal together and compare them.”

“‘But where was the proof?’ said Horace, doubtfully, on some wicked anecdote being told.”

Percy Fitzgerald, Charles Townshend (1866)

I have been warned against the perils of anecdotal evidence, and I am sure you have as well.  I have not, however, assimilated the modern prejudice against anecdotal evidence, and if you have, I hope to talk you out of it. I concede that it is a great mistake to extrapolate from an anecdote to an understanding of how things generally are, but I believe we make what is often a greater mistake when we fail to interpolate anecdotes into our understanding.

To interpolate is to alter something by insertion or addition.  When a book is reissued in an illustrated edition, for instance, the interpolated pictures alter the book, and more especially the reader’s experience of the book, because the images fix the appearance of the characters and scenes. Your fundamental understanding of the world matures and develops when you interpolate new data, and much of this new data comes to you in the form of anecdotes.  Contrary to the cant of poseurs who would like you to believe they are intelligent, an anecdote is data. If it is true, and not simply a wheeze or a yarn, an anecdote is a fact given by the world, and only a simpleton (or an ideologue) will fail to interpolate a fact that is given.

The literal meaning of anecdote is private intelligence, some information that is not public knowledge, a story that is not generally known.  The Greek root anecdota simply means unpublished, but the word very often implies private intelligence that, if true, contradicts, undermines, or places a question mark against official truth, public doctrine, and what is generally known.  This is why anecdotes amuse us.  This is why they are so often scandalous.  This is why the guardians of official truth and public doctrine are so eager to instill a prejudice against anecdotal evidence.

Every anecdote is not what my epigraph calls a “wicked anecdote,” for I may share with you some private intelligence that improves your opinion of a man, or a place, or an activity.  But every true anecdote is potentially disruptive because it will add to your understanding if you are not resolved to remain a simpleton, and will take the trouble to add it to the stock of what you know. The anecdote may be a “wicked anecdote” that explodes an innocent illusion, or it may be a generous anecdote that adds color and depth to what you already know, but true anecdotes should be interpolated, and should not be brushed off as merely “anecdotal evidence.”

* * * * *

Since newspapers are publications, an item published in a newspaper is not an anecdote under the strict definition.  But since the asinine stricture against anecdotal evidence is often raised against a newspaper article that contradicts official truth and public doctrine, I regard such articles as anecdotes under a broad definition.  Like the true anecdota of private intelligence, such articles reveal the limitations, if not the outright falsehood, of what is generally known.

The guardians of official truth and public doctrine tell us that such articles are merely “man-bites-dog stories,” and I will readily concede that they often are.  People buy (perhaps I should say bought) a newspaper because they want to be shocked and surprised, and editors wish to see people buy newspapers.  But many of the anecdotes we find in the newspaper are not so much man-bites-dog stories as man-loses-at-chess-with-a-dog stories.

And I trust it is clear that your fundamental understanding of the world will be far more radically altered when you interpolate the second sort of anecdote.

* * * * *

If you spend any time reading old newspapers, you will find they are troves of anecdotes of this second sort. They reveal the limitations, if not the outright falsehood, of much that is generally known to be true about the past. I was reminded of this just the other day, when I read this anecdote in a local newspaper from a hundred years ago.

“News reached Brenham early Monday morning that the negroes at Hidalgo Bluff were thrown into a state of great excitement from the fact that Ives Johnson, a burly negro brute, had ravished the young daughter of Burl Sergeant, a respectable colored man. Complaint was filed before Justice Moore, of Precinct No. 1, and the officers are now on the trail on the inhuman fiend.  The girl is but twelve years old and her condition is critical.  The entire neighborhood where the atrocious crime was committed is worked up to a fever heat and it is possible that the negroes will endeavor to take the law in their own hands and if they catch the brute it will go hard with him” (1).

One day later the newspaper in the state capital related the anecdote more directly.

“Negroes of Hidalgo Bluff are much stirred up by the ravishing of a 12 year old negro girl by a burly negro man and are searching for the rapist, with the intention of hanging him” (2).

Hidalgo Bluff is a low sandstone ridge that overlooks the floodplain of the Brazos River about twenty miles south of here.  In 1895, the floodplain was inhabited by Black laborers, sharecroppers, and chain gangs on loan from the State Penitentiary.  The population on the adjacent bluff was about equally divided between Black and White.  Brenham, further back on the upland, was also mixed, but predominantly White.  Race relations were often fraught in this district, and sometimes broke down in violence and murder, but these anecdotes put a large question mark against today’s official truth of the Jim Crow South.

The longer item in the Brenham newspaper strongly suggests that Whites were outraged by this rape, that they respected respectable Blacks, and that the white man’s law took the rape of a little black girl seriously.  It also implies, as the second item explicitly states, that Blacks were not behindhand when it came to stringing up a rapist.

I do not know if Ives Johnson was ever captured or lynched, since I have not discovered a sequel to this anecdote, but that does not affect the meaning of this anecdotal evidence.  The Jim Crow South was not a sunny land of happy darkies plucking banjos on the front porch, but neither does it seem to have been the Manichean morality play of Mississippi Burning (1988).

That morality play is, of course, a dehumanizing stereotype, and that dehumanizing stereotype is today a hideous fixture in the official truth and public doctrine of this land.  The value of an anecdote such as this one about the rape of Burl Sergeant’s daughter, is that it places a question mark against this stereotypic generalization.  Stereotypic generalization may be saintly or sinister, but they are always altered by the interpolation of a relevant anecdote.

And sometimes they are destroyed in what Thomas Huxley described as “the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact” (3).

Our history books are full of far from beautiful hypotheses, but our old newspapers are full of far from “ugly” facts.  These “ugly” facts are awkward and disruptive anecdotes, and this is why you need to overcome your prejudice against anecdotal evidence.

Bird Pond Road, Brazos County

(1) Brenham Daily Banner (Aug. 27, 1895), p. 3.

(2) Austin Weekly Statesman (Aug. 28, 1895), p. 4

(3) Thomas Huxley, “Address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science” (September 14, 1870).

10 thoughts on “In Defense of Anecdotal Evidence

  1. I was educated in the public school system, and after leaving college I enjoyed reading about history and quickly discovered that almost everything I was taught was bunkum. The biggest revelation by far was learning that slavery, far from being the sole purpose of the civil war, was instead a political bludgeon used against the political south (see also: your article, “Don’t be a Chump”).
    Since learning and educating myself slightly more on the topic, my policy with News, wikipedia, “prescribed learning”, and others has been to accept the broad strokes of events, and interpolate anecdotes to verify. History is like a graph which is invisible to us; anecdotes are small data points which are revealed to us in full. Our conceptions of history, our “line of best fit” can only be tuned to the anecdotes we know.

    As it happens, this is why primary source documents are so important. Learning how a person who was there saw an event can tell us more about an event than the official account taken on its own. Both data points taken together tell you even more, especially about how the person relates to the officiant. “Lee’s Lieutenants” beautifully illustrated this for me.

    I don’t know whether this essay was inspired by it or not, but just today I saw a headline that “Fake News” is a bigger concern to the American Public than terrorism. I think you provide good evidence for why that might be the case.

  2. One more reason why it’s dangerous to read anything published before 1992!!!

    Seriously, I wonder whether the move toward textbooks and away from primary sources, even in college courses, has occurred owing to this sort of narrative control. Textbooks can remove “problematic” glimpses of the past from the student’s view. I’m always struck by the idiocy of current common opinion about the past, and then I realize that more and more of that “foreign country” becomes hidden to would-be tourists each year. Consider the delight that schools, magazines, and fairs have in ridiculing the weirdness of past ages — even the recent 19th century West. Many of the anecdotes behind this ridiculing were plucked from the outrageous fringe of the time, and many other aspects become reasonable with a bit of context supplied. People two hundreds years hence, if our descendants survive and remember us, will find amusement in pondering the likes of Dennis Rodman and Anna Nicole Smith — those representative samples of late 20th century American life. And they would be wrong in imagining so. Such people reflect instead the early 21st century.

    Or take, for instance, the smug contempt that people have toward the stupidity of our ancestors. This really baffles me, as it isn’t uncommon (yet!) for contemporary Americans to read 19th century novels. It is obvious (still, I’d say) that the most popular writers in the 19th century were brilliant, insightful, and knowledgeable of the human condition. I could say the same about philosophical debates and their participants in the high middle ages, but I understand people’s suspicions about Parisian schoolmen being a representative group for the period. But these novels were widely read and appreciated two centuries ago. Many were initially published in popular middle class periodicals, such as Dostoevsky, Eliot, Twain, Dickens, and Balzac. Indicative of an intellectual dark age? They were the popular middlebrow entertainment of the time.

    • That is an interesting suggestion about Dennis Rodman and Anna Nicole Smith. We deserve to be mocked and scorned, and remembered for our freaks and perverts. After all, the commandment to do on to others is a double-edged sword. If we revile our ancestors, we are telling our descendants that we wish to be reviled.

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  4. A single case can be revealing when one notices what the contemporary report takes for granted, what it assumes its readers will regard as expected or as extraordinary. The broader knowledge one gains is more certain than that of the incident itself, since what one learns about general expectations will be true even if the facts of the case were actually different than reported. In this case, the reactions of both whites and blacks are reported as if not out of the ordinary for the circumstances, and I’m strongly inclined to believe that this presumption was correct.

  5. You’re quite right. Newspapers are great registers of what is ordinary, and what is ordinary is is a large part of what we mean by social order. They teach us about propriety. With the exception of the rapist Ives Johnson, everyone in this anecdote appears to have behaved with the utmost propriety, and to have played their part to a t. Even Ives Johnson seems to have acted the part of the “burly negro.”

  6. Coming out of the office this evening, I thought I’d take a look at Patrick Kurp’s wonderful literary blog, Anecdotal Evidence. No, I said to myself, let’s go to Orthosphere, where writers are more inclined to give credit to the Holy Spirit where it’s due. So, off to the Orthosphere I go, and what do I see? In Defense of Anecdotal Evidence. Quite a coincidence.

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