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.”