Two or three days ago the Speaker of the House was pressed by a journalist about those who had lost loved ones to crimes committed by people who had come here illegally. She responded, (and this is very nearly an exact quote) “The Plural of Anecdote is not Data.” And with that short sentence she not only misstated a fact, she dismissed thousands of true, painful stories of her countrymen.
Now before you get your underwear in a twist, this is not a Blog about Ms. Pelosi. Like Hillary Clinton’s “deplorable” comment, which I believe cost her the election, Nancy Pelosi will have to live with the consequences of that one simple statement. That is between her and the people of the United States.
But it caused me to examine it, since it seemed preposterous to me. Sometimes we all spout off about something, without stopping to really make sure we understand the words that make up the idea we are espousing. And, if we don’t understand a word properly, we can make a HUGE mistake in calculation or evaluation. So, I was inspired to look up a few words here.
Using my trusty American Heritage Dictionary, let’s examine the dismissive comment: “The Plural of Anecdote is not Data.”
The definition of anecdote is: a short account of an interesting or humorous incident. The Speaker was in trouble right there, as I doubt any of us would consider the death by murder of a family member, and the description of the event, to be humorous. But, all of us make mistakes. I am reminding myself right now to remember that, the next time I might be tempted to hurl out the word bigot, racist, xenophobe, sexist, misogynist, etc. So, let’s press on. The second definition is: hitherto undiscovered particulars of history or biography.
Let’s just say an anecdote is an account of an incident. It is a story.
So, what is a datum. According to the dictionary, it is: a fact or proposition used to draw a conclusion or make a decision. That certainly sounds like something we would always want to have as we are drawing conclusions–a factual datum, or its plural, data. The dictionary further defines data as: factual information, especially information used for analysis.
So, what is a fact? The dictionary defines it as: a real occurrence or event, something having real demonstrable existence.
Putting it all together now: Data are real occurrences or events that are analyzed and used for reaching conclusions, and making decisions. The real occurrences are the “anecdotes” or stories. They are actual, and the truth of the story allows one to reach a conclusion.
Statistically, we eventually take multiple stories of the same type and distil them into a numerical measurement. The story and the people in the story now are reduced to a number, and we look at the number to make our decision. 70,000 drug overdose deaths per year in the US is a datum. 300 per week dying in the US of heroin overdoes is a datum. Whatever the quantity is of rapes committed in this country or on route to this country are datums. Whatever the number is of Al Qaeda terrorists who make their way from Brazil up a corridor and into the US is a datum.
We can look at these numbers and hear talking heads evaluating and arguing about the significance and relevance of the data, arguing about the solutions, or even if there is a need for a solution. But, one inescapable fact remains: The numbers were derived from actual human stories, and the humanity was removed because to tell 70,000 stories would be too bulky and take too much time. So, instead we distil it. We can look at it. But, if we are not careful, we can also “dodge” it. Someone lived that death. You know exactly what I am talking about if you are one of the ones who has lived that story.
Take for example the “plural anecdotes” which were not considered “data” worthy of evaluation this past week. Take the 300 deaths per week of our countrymen to heroin overdoses that they were stupid enough to take. Stupidity is one thing, but I think we all agree that death is a pretty severe penalty for it. I personally have an “anecdote” for the Speaker about a young friend of mine who died a little over a year ago. His mother is a close friend, and I know the devastation and loss that the family experienced. But, I also lost a young friend whom I liked very much and enjoyed talking with about the world. I think of him often. This is true. It is actual. It was a real event, and he is now in the statistical data which was derived from the other stories like his. His anecdote is now in a category with others who died the same way.
The Speaker was wrong. The plural of anecdote IS data. She can be forgiven her poor choice of the word anecdote. Let’s see if she and others, and we ourselves, will be willing to look at the data–which is factual–and render a conclusion and decision that honors and respects those who have suffered through their own “anecdote.” If we lose sight of the fact that the numbers we read represent actual countrymen and their stories, then we do not deserve to be forgiven.
I tried to call the Speaker, but she is not taking calls. I believe she is in Puerto Rico–“strategizing.” I tried to call my newly elected representative in California. She is not taking calls either. I tried to call Senator Kamala Harris, and the same is true for her. I will try again. Or, perhaps one of you will forward this to your representatives, and maybe they can reach one of these folks. Or perhaps your favorite journalist you follow on Twitter…