The argument by anecdote: every demagogue’s best friend

Argument by anecdote is when you prove a point with a story.  It is a very compelling argument, because people like stories about other people more than they like cold, hard facts.   Too often, though, the argument by anecdote is used when the facts are stacked heavily against a position.  If you don’t have the facts, tell a story.  People will believe the anecdote because it demonstrates what they themselves believe to be true.  That’s why you’ll find more arguments by anecdotes proffered by those on the losing end of the “facts” battle.

It worked for Reagan, with his tales of welfare queens and small businesses frustrated by big government.  In a way, the “Willie Horton” ads of Bush Sr. were an argument by anecdote because studies have always shown that early parole invariably works to bring down the rate of recidivism; it just didn’t in this one anecdote.

If you listen carefully for arguments by anecdotes in what Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck say, you will find that, like most demagogues, they both make frequent use of them to support their positions.  For both, the argument by anecdote often takes the place of a racial stereotype or statement, especially when discussing poor people, Moslems or President Obama.

Now I’m bringing up the argument by anecdote for a reason.  There was a classic if crude example at the beginning of a weirdly disjointed article by columnist Ralph Reiland, which I saw in the November 16 issue of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

First the facts, here are reports of four of the many recent studies that have concluded that the U.S. takes worse care of its citizens than other industrialized nations and charges them more to do so.  Our infant mortality rate is higher, we die on average at a younger age, our doctors don’t send as many preventive reminders to patients, fewer of our doctors use electronic medical records, we pay more for health care…on and on and on it goes, a sad litany of surveys that show we spend the most and get the least in the way of health care: 

Now Mr. Reiland believes that the U.S. health care system is the best in the world and that the health care systems in other countries such as England are disasters.  The facts are against him, though, so he resorts to an anecdote of someone living in Great Britain who had two appendectomies in one month and is now in constant pain.  There is no explanation, as Reiland fills the second half of his column with other topics. 

But no explanation is needed.  By this time, people of all views understand that an anecdote about health care in Britain or Canada will likely be about a disaster and will be a living, breathing testament to the fact that we in the U.S. can thank our lucky stars that we have our healthcare system and not that of these other nations.

32 comments on “The argument by anecdote: every demagogue’s best friend
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  31. Marc Jampole says:

    Anecdotes can be powerful and effective tools, but only when they support facts. When they replace facts and go counter to the facts at hand, then it’s propaganda.

  32. paul sheldon says:

    At workshops on grant support and fund raising for non-profits, all that I have been told lately is “Skip the boring facts and statistics, tell a human story.” And folks are taught to tell a compelling story – mine must be more compelling/sympathetic than yours to get the money. So perhaps the anecdote has become everybody’s best friend, including those who purportedly wear the white hats.

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