Nicholas G. Carr
Author, The Shallows and The Big Switch
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 a 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, that it loses 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 has 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.
I employ lots of anecdotes, data, academic studies, stereotypes, appeal to authorities, consensus, lone geniuses, fiction, the whole gamut of potential evidence.
In general, I think people aren't terribly good at distinguishing between the two main reasons why a bit of anecdotal evidence would be memorable to more than one person: either it's illustrative of a dog-bites-man pattern or it's a man-bites-dog story that is interesting for its rarity, an exception that proves the rule (i.e., supports the general pattern by being famously exceptional).
It's not terribly hard to notice which one it is, but you've got to look. But I don't see much in our culture that tells people to try to distinguish along this dimension. Does it even have a name?