Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Plural of Anecdote...

My blog pal Vik posted some interesting thoughts on safety over at his blog and I strongly suggest you read through his post. Now you may or may not agree with what Vik has to say but he's a thoughtful guy and he's very open to the possibility that not everyone will agree with him 100% of the time on 100% of what he says.

I actually agree with Vik a very large percentage of the time and I certainly agree with the bulk of his latest post but I'm going to pick at a nit that I don't think is a nit. I think this nit is actually key to explaining why certain subjects like helmet use and helmet laws or segregated cycle paths and vehicular cycling seem to generate vast amounts of conversation and passion, yet very few people ever actually seem to change their minds on these matter based on these conversations.

I think the problem is in the understanding of the anecdote. Vik describes people who "quote a statistically invalid anecdote to support their un-logic" and then, like the good engineer that he is, he trots out his better data. And he may toss in some anecdotes of his own, like the story of his cousin's wife who died on her first attempt at sky-diving. But he's using that as an example of a personal, invalid data-point he's tossed out, because he's logical and logic is better.

And that, I think is the crux of the problem. Because the data that's out there, the data that matters, is not the data on the efficacy of helmets or probabilities of a cyclist being struck from behind. The data that matters is what has been learned about how human beings assess risk, react when startled, and most importantly, make decisions. We do not, in general, use data to make rational decisions. We use data to rationalize what we have already decided. This may not be logical, but it is very human.

The phrase often used to dismiss anecdotes is the infamous line "the plural of anecdote is not data." The interesting back story to that quote reveals that the original line actually was the opposite "the plural of anecdote is data" but I'd argue that the plural of anecdote is narrative. Narrative is how we structure our lives. Our brains do not retain data, our brains retain stories.

Every human society has a story-telling tradition going back thousands of years and while I certainly will not dismiss the accomplishments of logic and engineering, I think that those who dismiss the anecdotal, dismiss too much. Engineers may dismiss anecdotes, but people remember anecdotes every day, retell them and propagate them. Data sits in tables and appendices to reports. Anecdotes roam and rule the world.

I think Vik is certainly right about fear and the culture of fear. Too many scary stories are being retold every day. For data to effectively counter the fear, data is not enough. We need to tell a story, a compelling story that will be remembered, saved and propagated. Data should support this compelling story, but data alone is not enough.

I have no cease-fire for the helmet wars and I'm not going to tell you what color jacket to buy. And I've got a little library of data and reports that I dig into now and then. When asked about safety I still tend to point people the very handy website How Not To Get Hit By Cars. And when someone tells me of their fear or tells me some scary story, I try, I really try, to listen. And then, most often, I tell them some story. It usually involves someone being happy on a bike.

Keep 'em rolling,

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA


Unknown said...

I should note that I am not a safety role model. =>

Pondero said...

Great perspective, Kent. There's data, reasoning, persuasion, stories, personal preferences, and the mysteries of human behavior. And there's love to help us some of us get along anyway.

Peter said...

But why is it that the road design is done using mostly engineering data, but anything for a bike is done by anecdote? If you start looking at the risks of bicycling and how to reduce them from an engineering point of view and people call you crazy. Instead, bicycle facilities are designed based on people's fears, not the data.

So if we are talking automobiles, sciece. Bicycles, fear-based design. Why the difference?

jqfrederick said...

I like that phrase--"The plural of anecdote is narrative

Micheal Blue said...

It seems to be my experience that people assume an attitude that fits their state of being, and in most cases won't change it based on what someone else says/writes. Thus it seems pointless to debate or (even worse) argue about issues such as safety, the use of helmets, etc, in order to make (or help) others see/understand/accept your point of view, or at least a part of it. It may be beneficial to write an article about safety when it is done with positive intention, but pointless to debate it, because all parties involved have their own views and won't change them regardless of how much blah-blah is done.

WMdeR said...

Hi, Kent,

Thank you for this post. It articulates one of the cruxes of any bike safety discussion as well as I've seen done.

To Peter: road design isn't done mostly using engineering data. (I'm a civil engineer in my day job). Road design is a compromise of engineering data, tradition, cost, and 'human factors'.

An example is the modern roundabout. Engineers like them in general. They're far safer (for vehicular traffic, anyway--pedestrians present a design challenge) and lower-maintenance than a signalized intersection. However, they're perceived as dangerous and are fought hard by road users and local residents. It isn't the science they're arguing against.

Thanks again.

Best Regards,


William M. deRosset
Fort Collins, CO

Anonymous said...

The plural of anecdote is data.
The plural of data is boredom.
The plural of boredom is inattention.
The plural of inattention is WATCH OUT FOR THAT TRUCK!
The plural of truck is obituary.

Um, what was the topic? Oh yeah, safety!

I laughed at this sentence in Vik's screed:

"[The logical cyclist] doesn’t wear bright cycle specific clothing or use any lights because they only commute in the day"

Which means, I couldn't logically commute on my bike about 350 days a year. Last night a rode 12 miles on dark streets.

Spock says: ride at night, wear blinkies, and prosper.

Kirk says: shut up and ride, Spock.

That's the problem with logic--you have to know the context of the problem set. Ask the guys at Fukushima how the emergency planning manual is working out these days.

Though, maybe Vik dealt with the problem set earlier in his post, I kinda skimmed to the anecdotes.

Personally I have a "HELMETS KILL" sticker on my helmet to express the conundrum. Helmets might help in case of accident, but helmets are the beginning and end of bicycle safety efforts in most of the US. The gumment passes a helmet law and that's it for bicycle safety in Springfield.

Ned Flanders: You were bicycling two abreast?
Homer Simpson: I wish. We were bicycling to a lake.

jnyyz said...

Kent, I wish I could write one tenth as well as you.

Anonymous said...

Nice post. Yes, this is human nature. The question is: what to do about it? Can you do anything about it? Maybe you're right: Forget the data, and tell a story.

Yokota Fritz said...

"...very few people ever actually seem to change their minds on these matter based on these conversations."

Is that data or anecdote, Kent? :-)

Erik Hardy said...

As a reformed scientist I believe you can make data say nearly anything you like. We could easily convert the saying "Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder" to "Data is in the eyes of the beholder". Like it or not, the vast majority of roads were designed for cars. Us bike riders can only make our presence felt and hope for the days when we are treated as equals. Until then take whatever measures are necessary to make you feel as "Saf-er-est" as possible and hope for the best. Checking over your shoulder ever few seconds doesn't hurt and the old adage of better safe than sorry seems like words to live by in my book.

Great post Kent.

Anonymous said...

Anecdotes are powerful. They're a part of evolution that helped us survive many years ago but they are less helpful today when we have so much more information.

The same is true for a persons interest in bad news. We pay attention to it because it has helped ensure survival over the ages. There is little reason to pay attention to the good news because, it's not an immediate threat to survival.

We know better now. Cyclist lead longer and healthier lives and worries about surviving when riding bicycles has more to do with primitive thought processes that are deeply embedded, than logical thought based on sound information