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Sunday, May 12, 2019

Bad Arguments #4 - argument by anecdote

‘One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.’ So said Joseph Stalin. Stalin is perhaps not the ideal role model for a debater, given that, during his brutal reign as leader of the Soviet Union, he had millions of people murdered for daring to question a single word he said. However, he did have a point.


Individual stories - also known as anecdotes - are always more emotionally powerful than generalised statistics. As such, they can be very persuasive. If a charity wants to raise money to help girls in underdeveloped countries attend school, a story about little Aisha who wants to be a doctor when she grows up because she saw her mother die of malaria and ever since she’s wanted to make other women better is always going to have people reaching for their credit cards faster than graphs and charts extrapolating levels of female education as correlated to mortality rates. So it’s not surprising that debaters often reach for these stories in the hope of persuading audiences and judges. 


The trouble is that an argument by anecdote is not a valid argument. Why? Because it can only provide proofs about one person, or at best a small group of people. You can’t make a general proof from a sample of one, or very few.


Let’s take an example. Going back to our old favourite, ‘This house would make all schools co-educational’, a speaker against the motion tells us a moving story about her best friend, Anoushka. Anoushka started out at a co-educational school, but was miserable there because the boys all mucked about in English, her favourite subject, so she couldn’t learn anything. Her parents took her out and put her in a girls’ school, where everyone wanted to work, and now she is getting top grades in English. This proves that girls’ schools always get better results.


Does it? What does this anecdote actually prove? It might prove that the English teacher in Anoushka’s first school wasn’t very good at keeping order. It might prove that the English teacher in her second school was better at keeping order and also better at teaching English. It might perhaps prove that, for Anoushka, a girls’ school is the better choice. What it doesn’t prove is that girls’ schools always get better results. 


How could the speaker have made the argument better? 


She could have looked up data about exam results, which does, in fact, show that girls’ schools tend to get better exam results than co-educational schools. That’s girls’ schools from across the country - so a large sample, therefore stronger evidence. If it was a short prep debate, where she wouldn’t have access to this research, she could have made a more general point about the way in which girls tend, in general, to be more conscientious and eager to please their teachers, and are therefore more likely to achieve good exam results (why this might be and whether or not it is a good thing are both matters for discussion and, perhaps, debate). Of course, neither of these arguments would have the personal, emotional appeal of Anoushka’s story. But they would be much stronger arguments, and much more likely to win the debate.


What should you do if someone uses argument by anecdote against you?


It can be hard rebutting argument by anecdote, because it can feel like a personal attack, especially if the anecdote is particularly emotional or revealing. In this respect it is a bit like the ‘you can't tell me that’ argument we covered in Bad Arguments #2. It is possible, however, both to respect the anecdote and to rebut the argument, by first pointing out that, while the anecdote may be true, it only applies to one person and one situation, and by then broadening the argument back out to general questions.


So, if you found yourself faced with Anoushka’s story, you could say ‘I’m sorry that your friend had a bad time at her first school, and I’m glad that she’s happy at her new school. Maybe that first school just wasn’t right for her; maybe there were other reasons that she was unhappy, that had nothing to do with it being co-educational; maybe it just wasn’t a very well run school. Well run co-educational schools are the best option for all children because …’ and off you go, back to the wider arguments for your side of the case.



It’s hard giving up anecdote, precisely because it is so appealing. It’s also used very widely to persuade, both in advertising and in politics. But argument by anecdote is not honest argument; it will be marked down by judges, and it will lose you the debate.

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