If You’re Going to Use Anecdotal Data, At Least Choose the Right Anecdotes

December 26, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

For instance isn’t proof.  So goes the old saying (Yiddish? Navaho? Confucian?).

Every semester in every course, I tell students that although anecdotal data can be useful for illustrating a general truth, a few selected cases don’t prove anything.  So the argumentum ex anecdotum (pardon my made-up Latin) bothers me, especially when it comes from a social scientist.

Here’s a letter in today’s Times.
Ian Ayres and Aaron S. Edlin write, “It would be bad for our democracy if 1 percenters started making 40 or 50 times as much as the median American.”

Are Bill and Melinda Gates a great threat to democracy? Jeff Bezos? Oprah Winfrey? Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg? I fail to see how those who have amassed great fortunes in America threaten American democracy.

They do not plot coups or finance fascist militias. They do, however, give lots of money to wonderful charitable and educational organizations.

I think much of the animus toward the enormous success of such people is rooted in jealousy. “It’s not right that some people should make so much more money than I do” is the spiteful feeling behind much of the opposition to the 1 percenters.

Russ Nieli
Princeton, N.J., Dec. 20, 2011
The writer is a lecturer in the politics department at Princeton.

Not only does Princeton Lecturer Nieli rely solely on anecdotal data, but at least two of the four people he mentions clearly illustrate the point he is denying -  that with great wealth comes the potential for great political power.  Does anyone think that Michael Bloomberg, whatever his skills in politics, would have become mayor if his income were that of a lecturer at Princeton?   If money really makes no difference in politics, if we all had equal power based only on our one vote per person, why do politicians spend so much time raising so much money?

Or take the recent legislation in California to apply the state sales tax to Internet sales.  It was pretty clear that one citizen of the state of Washington, Jeff Bezos, had vastly more influence on the legislation than did any citizen of California.  It’s also clear that Mr. Bezos was lobbying not for what was best for the people of the Golden State but what was best for Amazon.

I won’t bother to comment on Lecturer Nieli’s professional assessment of the psychological motivations (jealousy, spite) of those who oppose great inequality.
Perhaps Mr. Nieli lectures to his Princeton students that huge disparities in citizens’ power are true to the spirit of democracy.  But then again, I’ve never known Princeton to be careful in its choice of lecturers.

Jay Livingston was a lecturer in the psychology department at Princeton.  (True fact.)


Jake said...

That's disconcerting. "Best and the Brightest" my ass.

Also, sometimes people don't express themselves well, and the vagaries of rhetoric can make something intended as a mere illustration seem like an argumentum ex anecdotum.

On the other hand, it's very easy to counter "you're generalizing hastily" with "that was just an illustration, not a generalization from an anecdote."

But there's no excuse for this guy.

Jay Livingston said...

Thanks for the comment, Jake. Matt Taibbi in
Rolling Stone has more examples of the rich buying the government they need, though he mentions none of Niele’s four paragons. I got the link via Peter Moskos , who adds his own personal observations on the 1%.