Quote: the plural of anecdote is data (antedating 1983 attrib Raymond Wolfinger)

Garson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Sun May 30 04:04:46 UTC 2010

Fred Shapiro covered an extraordinary saying at the New York Times
blog on April 29th.

Two contradictory modern aphorisms have achieved currency: "the plural
of anecdote is data" and "the plural of anecdote is not data". I think
a case can be made for both expressions:

(1) "the plural of anecdote is data": By definition "data" is a
collection of data points and each data point is simply an anecdote.

(2) "the plural of anecdote is not data": Worthwhile data must be
collected in a systematic manner to assure that biases are not
introduced. The aggregation of anecdotes collected in a haphazard
process does not yield genuine data.

Even if you do not accept these one sentence argument sketches you may
be interested in the following cites for version (1). The earliest
cite given in the blog article is dated "Autumn 1984". Below are cites
from April 1984 and 1983 (reprint of a 1982 work based on 1981
conference). The first attributes the quotation to Roger Noll, and the
second attributes the words to Raymond Wolfinger.

Cite: 1984 April, Duke Law Journal, Volume 1984, Number 2, Fifteenth
Annual Administrative Law Issue, "Review: Black Robes and Blacker
Boxes: The Changing Focus of Administrative Law" by Ronald A. Cass,
Page 428, Duke University School of Law. (JSTOR)

Unfortunately, it is difficult to gather much supporting evidence that
rises above the anecdotal. (Not long ago, Roger Noll observed before a
group of administrative lawyers that in the social sciences the plural
of "anecdote" is "data.")

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1372369

Cite: 1983 [1982: Reprint. Originally published: Chestnut Hill, MA:
Boston College, Copyright 1982] [1981: Year of Conference] The United
States Congress: Thomas P. O'Neill, Jr., Symposium on the U.S.
Congress editor Dennis Hale, Article: "What's He Like? What's She
Like? What Are They Like?" by Richard F. Fenno, Jr., Transaction
Publishers, New Brunswick, New Jersey.  (Google Books limited view)

Why should we leave the journalists in charge of the "What's he like?"
question? And, hence, in charge of the "What are they like?" question?
Why, indeed, should we leave them in charge of anecdotes? As Raymond
Wolfinger has wisely observed, "The plural of anecdote is data." We
might have better data if we collected it ourselves.



The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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