Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The plural of "anecdote" is not "data"

Source: Simon's Line in Web Design

The plural of datum is data.

The plural of anecdote is anecdotes.

Yet in some circumstances, sometimes found in anthropology or sociology, certain anecdotes are data.

Language is imprecise.

I can imagine that collecting and analyzing anecdotes in circulation about various candidates for the presidency, one could learn about their relative popularity, their strong points and their weak points as seen by the electorate. In such a situation, anecdotes might indeed be regarded as data.

"Data" is defined as "Facts and statistics collected together for reference or analysis."

"Anecdote" is defined as "A short and amusing or interesting story about a real incident or person." or "An account regarded as unreliable or hearsay."

The problem is that in our daily lives we hear anecdotes all the time, and frequently use these anecdotes to form opinions and guide actions. You hear from one friend that he had a bad experience at a local restaurant, and from another that he had a great experience at a different restaurant. Which do you visit next?

On the other hand, scientists seek to draw conclusions from experiments under controlled conditions, often replicated, and often designed to explore the relations between factors hypothesized to be causal and resultant. Still, there are descriptive sciences which depend on observations of "naturally occurring" phenomena. However, data differ from anecdotes in their purpose, the ways in which they are formed, and the quality of the observation.

Scientists get upset when people regard conclusions drawn from anecdotal evidence to be as good as conclusions drawn by the scientific community from scientific data.

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