Anecdotes are incredibly convincing, especially when they focus on an extreme case. However, anecdotes are not always representative of larger populations. Some anecdotes are very context dependent, focus on specific and odd situations, and deal with narrow circumstances. However, because they are often vivid, highly visible, and emotionally resonant, they can be highly memorable and influential.
Systemic thinking often lacks many of these qualities. Often, the general reference class is hard to see or make sense of. It is much easier to remember a commute that featured an officer or traffic accident than the vast majority of commutes that were uneventful. Sometimes the data directly contradicts the anecdotal stories and thoughts we have, but that data often lacks the visibility to reveal the contradictions. This happens frequently with news stories or TV shows that highlight dangerous crime or teen pregnancy. Despite a rise in crime during 2020, we have seen falling crime rates in recent decades, and despite TV shows about teen pregnancies, those rates have also been falling.
In Vices of the Mind, Quassim Cassam examines anecdotal versus systematic thinking to demonstrate that anecdotal thinking can be an epistemic vice that obstructs our view of reality. He writes, “With a bit of imagination it is possible to show that every supposed epistemic vice can lead to true belief in certain circumstances. What is less obvious is that epistemic vices are reliable pathways to true belief or that they are systematically conducive to true belief.”
Anecdotal versus systematic thinking or structural thinking is a useful context for thinking about Cassam’s quote. An anecdote describes a situation or story with an N of 1. That is to say, an anecdote is a single case study. Within any population of people, drug reactions, rocket launches, or any other phenomenon, there are going to be outliers. There will be some results that are strange and unique, deviating from the norm or average. These individual cases are interesting and can be useful to study, but it is important that we recognize them as outliers and not generalize these individual cases to the larger population. Systematic and structural thinking helps us see the larger population and develop more accurate beliefs about what we should normally expect to happen.
Anecdotal thinking may occasionally lead to true beliefs about larger classes, but as Cassam notes, it will not do so reliably. We cannot build our beliefs around single anecdotes, or we will risk making decisions based on unusual outliers. Trying to address crime, reduce teen pregnancy, determine the efficacy of a medication, or verify the safety of a spaceship requires that we understand the larger systemic and structural picture. We cannot study one instance of crime and assume we know how to reduce crime across an entire country, and none of us would want to ride in a spaceship that had only been tested once.
It is important that we recognize anecdotal thinking, and other epistemic vices, so we can improve our thinking and have better understandings of reality. Doing so will help improve our decision-making, will improve the way we relate to the world, and will help us as a society better determine where we should place resources to help create a world we want to live in. Anecdotal thinking, and indulging in other epistemic vices, might give us a correct answer from time to time, but it is likely to lead to worse outcomes and decisions over time as we routinely misjudge reality. This in turn will create tensions and distrust among a society that cannot agree on the actual trends and needs of the population.