America: The anecdotal nation

By Neal Gabler
April 14, 2014

In America today, anecdotes have become the new facts.

Consider Obamacare. Opponents have produced ads featuring apparently ordinary Americans telling stories about the travails forced upon them by the Affordable Care Act. One ad, financed by the Koch brothers, highlighted a leukemia sufferer named Julie Boonstra, who claimed that Obamacare had raised the cost of her medications so much that she was faced with death! Pretty dramatic stuff — except that numerous fact-checkers found she would actually save $1,200 under Obamacare.

But what are you going to believe — a sob story or a raft of statistics about the 7.5 million Americans who have signed up and the paltry 1 million folks who had policies canceled?

Or take global warming. Anecdotally speaking, conservatives have insisted that global warming must be a hoax because we have had such cold winters — never mind the scientists who have documented the Earth’s rising temperature. But what are you going to believe — the seasonal chill or the consensus of thousands of climate scientists whose data overwhelmingly support global warming?

Admittedly, anecdotes are an appealing way to dramatize issues. But, as the Boonstra ad and the winter stories demonstrate, there is a problem. However captivating they are, anecdotes often undermine facts – and the truth. Yes, they provide a story, but they seldom provide the whole story. What we get is often misleading, sometimes downright deceptive.

We are especially afflicted in this country. Americans seem to have a greater fondness for anecdotes than citizens of any other nation. Newscasts invariably have human-interest segments; every guest on late-night television must come armed with a funny little story, and no recent State of the Union address is complete without the president pointing up to the gallery and telling the heart-rending stories of his guests there. You could say that we live in Anecdotal America where, as the poet William Carlos Williams said, there are “no ideas but in things.”

Though many anecdotes are harmless, they can be worrisome when it comes to public policy — where anecdotes now abound.

Republicans seem to rely on anecdotes almost in direct proportion to their dismissal of science and fact. But in fairness, anecdotes are one of the few things in America that are truly bipartisan. Democrats use them too, and their anecdotes are no more likely to capture the multiplicity of effects of a policy than the Republicans’.

Both parties understandably want to put a “face” on policy. Yet both Democrats and Republicans operate within the same fallacy — that one small incident can serve as a telling example for a far more complicated and broader issue. This may be good politics. It is bad epistemology.

Though he certainly didn’t invent it, President Ronald Reagan was the virtuoso of fabulism – expert at damning the facts and celebrating the story. He loved to talk about the “welfare queen” who bought a brand-new Cadillac by defrauding the government.  That encapsulated – far better than any statistics could — what everyone already knew was wrong with welfare. Even if it bore little relation to the truth. The welfare queen represented each and every welfare recipient — all of whom, many Americans believed, were chiselers. Reagan just gave the belief a story.

Reagan also loved to tell the one about the man who invented a beer-can holder and, as a result, became a millionaire. I have no idea if this man was another figment of the Great Communicator’s imagination, but the man was another stand-in — this one for every American dreamer. At the time when social mobility was declining, Reagan’s anecdote asserted that anyone who wanted to make it could make it.

Reagan virtually governed through these stories. As a Hollywood actor, he understood that movie reality often usurped “real” reality, and it had regularly proved true  for him. Reagan used to regale visitors with various tales he alleged to be true, which then turned out to be lifted from the movies.

For example, when Reagan addressed Congressional Medal of Honor winners in 1983, he told them the stirring story of a wounded young gunner whose plane was going down and of the commander who decided to go down with him — so the boy wouldn’t die alone. Though Reagan presented this as a true war story, it wasn’t. It was actually a scene from the movie A Wing and a Prayer. Even after his staff warned him not to relate this movie narrative, Reagan kept using the anecdote.  He couldn’t help himself.

In presenting movies as reality, Reagan wasn’t being duplicitous — any more than he was being duplicitous when talking about the welfare queen. As a longtime story-teller, he may have so deeply internalized the fictional that it became real to him. (Though a classical actor in Hollywood, he became a Method actor in the White House.)

What is troubling is that many Americans internalize these fictions too — which is why so many politicians wield anecdotes instead of facts. Studies show that most Americans reject facts when they are confronted with them if those facts don’t reinforce their prejudices. Stories are a lot more effective, false or not, simplification or not.

That may be because, just as Reagan was in thrall to the movies, so are most Americans. Movies are so vivid, so emotive, so powerful that they not only make it easy for us to confuse fiction and fact — they make us want to confuse them.

There are still Americans who believe John Wayne won World War Two even though he was acting on a Hollywood soundstage rather than fighting on the battlefield. In Anecdotal America, when anecdotes and facts compete, the anecdotes usually wind up winning. We are beholden to them.

And so there was the new Federal Reserve Board chairwoman, Janet Yellen, during her first public address in that role, telling anecdotes about three people affected by the economic downturn. Her stories were effective and personal — yet another attempt to put a human face on cold economics. It was, in truth, effective. But was it an accurate depiction of working-class America?

These days we just don’t know. To paraphrase the celebrated line from John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,: “When the anecdote becomes fact, print the anecdote.”

 

PHOTO (TOP): President Ronald Reagan waving to well-wishers on the south lawn of the White House, before departing for a summit in Tokyo, April 25, 1986. REUTERS/Joe Marquette

PHOTO (Insert 1): David (L) and Charles Koch in a combination image.  REUTERS/Courtesy Koch Industries

PHOTO (INSERT 2): President Ronald Reagan addressing a news conference in Washington, October 19, 1983. REUTERS/Mal
Langsdon

PHOTO (INSERT 3): Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen speaks as she tours City Colleges of Chicago, College to Careers Program in Advanced Manufacturing, at Daley College in Chicago, March 31, 2014. REUTERS/John Gress


19 comments

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This is why the political landscape is changing. The older generations are the ones who believe in movies and TV. The GOP who relies solely on this type of manipulation will suffer the most from the decline in belief in mass media. The author points out that the dems do it too, and they do, yet they have fewer people of that type (the believers of anecdotes). The real question is, will the younger generation care enough to support a third party, because obviously neither of the two current parties care about them, simply because they are few in number. And, they should not expect anything from their parents, because old people vote for old people issues.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

Just like there are still those who believe Sandra Fluke was deprived of her civil rights because she was given free birth control.

Posted by lostinla | Report as abusive

The real core issue of such stuff is a few decades back, we no longer could understand the word “Educate”, no longer sure nor did most of USA care if noun, verb, adjudicative, adverb, as no longer of any concern to most. AKA a dumb herd easier to handle then a smart one, more when it comes to “anecdotes”, lies and liars, the latter two via the “Fog of language now days”, would be called “anecdotally challenged”

Posted by chuck2 | Report as abusive

Well, I think scientific data is great, but you have to have enough data before you can generate a curve that means something. I think too few scientists are leading too many young people whose only method of fact judgement is a smart phone or a tablet. Education is fine, but until it is put into use and what you learned is tested you are only educated and not experienced. We are still using ethanol even though it is a poor motor fuel. We as a nation still do not look at the full life costs of solar, wind, and biomass before we tout these as great sources of power. These sources are subsidized and used to fill the pockets of campaign contributors. Geothermal is one of the most green sources of power, but it gets little press. The writer of this article cannot educate us old fogies because he or she or it does not understand experience.

Posted by fred5407 | Report as abusive

It is easier to embed lies into people’s belief system when they can visualize a story, particularly when they align with things people have directly observed. These anecdotes expertly augment real memories: somebody sees a nice car in a low income neighborhood, and remember it looked out of place. People have that memory, then somebody suggest that the owner is on welfare; and it just validates what they suspected, and now believe. They buy it hook line and sinker. Never mind that the nice car belongs to a middle class business man who is in that neighborhood visiting his mother. The lie was so expertly placed, that the more you try to convince them otherwise, the more strongly they believe the lie.

Or take global warming. Scientist start talking about atmospheric CO2 being optically transparent to sunlight, but capturing and releasing the wavelength of heat radiated from the earth. They don’t understand, and it make them frustrated. But somebody comes along and says, “scientist are just trying to get grant money, look it’s snowing”. They see the snow, so the part about the scientist making all this up must be true as well. Never mind that it is easier to get a grant for denying climate change than to study it. If you try to tell them otherwise, they just believe it more.

Posted by diluded0000 | Report as abusive

Mr. Gabler, Understanding that this is an opinion column, I still find it humorous that you attack the GOP out of the gate, then state the Dems are guilty as well (without specific example), and then go back to attacking the GOP. I’m not sure how you expect readers to think that your article is nothing but political trash.

I’m an Independent voter. I think both parties have much to answer for when considering the current status of our country. I can also see through the rhetoric because I choose to be informed. Unfortunately, many young Americans choose not to be informed but rely upon sound bites and comedians to shape their opinions. Critical thinking is not being taught in schools so that we can dumb down the children and make them all equal. This has been going on for decades.

Politically motivated anecdotes allow the speaker to state anything and make it sound true. If the anecdote is found to be false, then the speaker can shrug it off because it was just a ‘story’. This has been going on for as long as governments have existed. The difference now is that the anecdotes are being repeated over and over in all the various forms of media until they ‘become’ fact. Just like bad science, if you get enough people to positively review / repeat your findings, the findings become indisputable fact.

Critical thinking must be brought back into the schools. Parents must teach, and encourage, their children to think critically. Of course, we’re now at a generational point where the pool of critical thinkers is dwindling rapidly.

Posted by JKenny | Report as abusive

All politicians are adept at speaking out both sides of their mouths. They campaign to get into office and then continue to campaign rather than serve. Nothing new. I must admit the perks and benefits and pay for politicians would be something I would fight to keep my own, too. Quite frankly, none of them has ever impressed me that they are truly knowledgeable about anything. If one ever bothers to educated himself on a particular subject, it is because it will serve his purpose to gain votes.
Fighting for votes is the only true bipartisan endeavor.

Posted by alwayslearning | Report as abusive

Americans have also succumbed to poor and unbalanced reporting, like yours. Interesting that you introduce your topic with Republican examples, despite a current Democratic administration exuding over the top virtuosity of fabulism. Obama has far eclipsed the Gipper for verbal fiction, especially when it comes to health care legislation. And an educated analysis of the climate change controversy is not the fact of any incremental increase in global temperatures, but that the observed increases are far below that projected by current models, bringing into question how much current economic resources should be allocated to fight an under-performing problem. Try reading a better analysis of the subject in the Economist.

Posted by economicrealist | Report as abusive

Fact of politics last few decades, if a Bill is up that really does something to improve commoners lives, “hopelessly gridlocked”, If Bill benefits upper 2%, and of course elected in one way or other, “Just enough cross isle to squeak it by”.
Folks simply are not educated nor have been for years on the government, the nation, international, money-currency-associated math. so they get lied to for wars, taxes, health care, jobs etc. Way back in 1980′s we were told, get rid of dirty ole manufacturing, get a pc, work from home, factories shipped offshore, “keyboarding” (basically data entry) was the hot thing so we could service each others data. NONE question how this would or could work, and it never did, rather it looted USA middle class jobs, has lowered wages for most, USA degraded education now way down in world class competitive education.

Biggest sales job was “all elected are corrupted”, which implies when they lie, cheat and steal, “that is what we expect them to do”, so they do while public grazes and the economic wolves feed, most not educated enough to life a hand, but many will pay to vote on some TV show, So went Rome, so goes USA, but the elected will never tell, not that mos would or do care, they just graze.

Posted by chuck2 | Report as abusive

“There are still Americans who believe John Wayne won World War Two even though he was acting on a Hollywood soundstage rather than fighting on the battlefield.”

This claim sounds suspiciously anecdotal…

Posted by DaleG | Report as abusive

He offers mainly anecdotal support for this argument.

Posted by DaleG | Report as abusive

Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky suggest that choice models may be contingent on stories or anecdotes that frame or influence choice.Take Stalin apocryphal quote: The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic. Take Bush in a news conference on Iraq: This would be easy if I were a dictator and the dictator was me.Compare Obama lines on NSA, CIA, Syria, Russia/ Ukraine.
What is real, what is fake or better what is hypocritical?
Nietsche had it right in 1882: All things are subject to interpretation! Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth”
On the anecdotal nation, make it plural, and consider Schiller’s dictum: “Anyone taken as an individual, is tolerably sensible and reasonable – as a member of a crowd, he at once becomes a blockhead.
Those in power and the privileged elites thrive on this human defect – Madness of Crowds- to keep their power and their riches. It’s just a type of morality, aside from education and scientific proof!

Posted by niusvius | Report as abusive

@DaleG
“He offers mainly anecdotal support for this argument.” Absolutely true, but how else to reach the audience that completely ignores facts but believes anecdotes?

Posted by QuietThinker | Report as abusive

I agree with the author.

I have a friend who firmly believes in the powers of homeopathic medicine. Even though it has been proven that all those little pills contain is sugar and distilled water, she says:

“Every time my kids have gotten sick with a cold or flu, I’ve always given them homeopathic remedies and they’ve always gotten better”.

Well, yea, of course they have. Colds and flus tend to resolve themselves. Antibiotics are of no use and remedies such as homeopathy benefit from the placebo effect.

Well, that’s just one example. Other friends tell me “The Lord gave me a new TV set this week after months of prayers finally paid off.” Great.

Posted by LoveJoyOne | Report as abusive

I see. Only liberals are capable of reaching the kind enlighted conclusions that allow them to persist in public policies that contradict reason.

For instance, Obamacare was jammed down our throats for the purported benefit of “30 million un-insured Amreicans”. Now you trot out 7.5 million covered under Nannycare as an achievement, although that at best represents at 25% pass rate. Never mind that only a few hundred thousand of them are newly insured– 7.5 million is a bigger number than most of us well see in our lifetimes so it must be good.

or take the author’s comments on Global Warming. Study after study has proven that the Earth is historically warmer historically than it has been in recent history. We’ve seen that CO2 levels were orders of magnitude higher at points in Earth’s history and that biological diversity was often much greater than that of today.

Fortunately for liberals anecdotes do convince people more easily than facts. Were this not so, progressivism couldn’t have persisted with America– a fact check would show the “ominous parallels” between the liberal’s big list of social issues needing immediate rectification and the first 2 pages of Mein Kampf.

Posted by lolursrs | Report as abusive

The use of anecdotes to make political arguments has bothered me for some time. I have always sensed that the left has used this technique more successfully than the right has, which seems to explain the left’s success in winning policy arguments and convincing Americans that they deserve to be elected to public office. Now the author of this piece claims that Republicans have used anecdotes more than Democrats have, turning on its head my earlier conclusion. I suspect that the author’s claim will now itself become an oft-told anecdote, becoming part of the great American political story. Everyone will be repeating the claim that Democrats have all the facts and Republicans are just spinning yarns. Heaven Help this once-great country.

Posted by janejohn1 | Report as abusive

Quote: “paltry 1 million folks who had policies canceled? [because of Obamacare]”

It is up to your conciseness, but personally I would not use the “paltry” wording in the context. A million families, i.e. something like 2 to 5 million people, are not just a rounding error.

Posted by yurakm | Report as abusive

None of this type of ‘mis-statement’ would have any impact if the news media didn’t report it. It is up to them to factcheck such statements and refuse to publish them if they are false.

Posted by MACT | Report as abusive

people routinely believe lies – i believed i’d be able to keep my insurance. now I have insurance, but it does not cover me – it’s a bureucratic loophole and I’m stuck in it.

On Dec 31st I had the freedom to pay a doctor cash for services, on Jan 6th i was forced into a new policy which removes that freedom – this is fact. There is a way around the problem, but it involves establishing a complex set of contracts between me and the doctor and a bank account. Only then will I have the freedom to go to a doctor, get some advice, and give them some money (law 410-120-1280 in my state)

I am in this problem because I believed the lies of washington – i find it easiest now just to assume that nothing I read nor hear, and nothing in the federal register, is sensible, logical, or truthful.

The ACA has effectively killed any semblance of respect I had for the institutions of our democracy – thanks Barak!

Posted by noscreen32768 | Report as abusive