Monday, November 30, 2009

The plural of anecdote is data

From askville (Amazon) Nelson W. Polsby PS, Vol. 17, No. 4. (Autumn, 1984), pp. 778-781. Pg. 779: Raymond Wolfinger's brilliant aphorism "the plural of anecdote is data" never inspired a better or more skilled researcher.

I e-mailed Wolfinger last year and got the following response from him:

"I said 'The plural of anecdote is data' some time in the 1969-70 academic year while teaching a graduate seminar at Stanford.

The occasion was a student's dismissal of a simple factual statement--by another student or me--as a mere anecdote. The quotation was my rejoinder.

Since then I have missed few opportunities to quote myself. The only appearance in print that I can remember is Nelson Polsby's accurate quotation and attribution in an article in PS: Political Science and Politics in 1993; I believe it was in the first issue of the year."
I also e-mailed Polsby, who didn't know of any early printed occurrences.
What is interesting about this saying is that it seems to have morphed into its opposite -- "Data is not the plural of anecdote" -- in some people's minds. Mark Mandel used it in this opposite sense in a private e-mail to me, for example.
Fred Shapiro

From MPC Publog -

The Plural of Anecdote is Data
Perhaps the most memorable quote of the STM meeting was dropped by MIT Sloan School of Management Economist Erik Brynjolfsson, who directs the Center for Digital Business. (It turns out the quote is attributable to Berkeley Political Scientist Raymond Wolfinger, who apparently coined it in the 60s or 70s. Lots of people quote its opposite [The plural of anecdote is NOT data] and try to attribute the source of that quote...Isn't Google great for trivia questions?)

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Anonymous said...

I remember the occasion of "the plural of anecdote is data" very well. Ray was the faculty member and I was the snarky graduate student in the first-year graduate proseminar on American politics at Stanford.

Ray died this morning after a long and lingering illness. He was a wonderful teacher, mentor, and friend . . in that order.
Dick Winters
Remsen Professor Emeritus of Government
Dartmouth College
Hanover, NH

S F X said...

Thank you Dick for letting me know.