A Matter of Definition

Have you ever encountered the phrase, “The plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data’ “?  To unpack a little bit, it means that just because you can tell a story about something that happened to you, that doesn’t mean all instances of that thing happening will unfold like yours did.  Say you were broken down by the side of a busy road for three hours while no one stopped to help you.  That doesn’t mean people are selfish, just that you had bad luck.  Conversely, if someone stopped 30 seconds after you got out and started kicking the tire, that doesn’t mean everyone in the world is a helpful, kind person; it means you happened to draw the long straw.

The problem with the glib phrase there is that the plural of anecdote is precisely data.  Every experimental result is essentially an anecdote, and the aggregate of all of them is the data.  You just have to have lots of them to have enough data to mean anything.

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