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Using Anecdotes or: The Worst Arguments AGAINST the World is Getting Safer

(Though many don’t want to believe it, the world is getting safer. There will be an end to war, someday, if the world works towards it. To read the rest of our posts on “The World is Getting Safer”, click here.)

It’s a cruel world out there, folks. Turn on CNN and you hear about another plane crash. Turn on Fox News and see ISIS taking another town. Hell, even the the local morning news broadcast has a story every day about a shooting or car accident.

Sociologists have a word for this: “mean world syndrome”. Mass media makes violence seems more prevalent than it actually is. This doesn’t just apply to the average person; it also applies to critics and academics who don’t think the world is getting safer. (Or as I dub them, “anti-pollyannas”.) In other words...

They use anecdotes!

Imagine someone who is trying to disprove that the world’s population is growing larger, pointing out that their grandmother just died. Or imagine a global warming denialist pointing out that it’s snowing outside. No one said that people weren’t dying and that there would be no more winters. They said the population is growing and average global temperatures are rising.

For most anti-pollyannas, the best way to disprove the “world is getting safer” theory is to bring up an anecdote of an isolated incident of violence. No one said violence no longer exists, we said it’s becoming rarer. (Ironically, as the world gets safer, incidents of violence may actually get more news coverage.)

Commenters here at On Violence have provided us two perfect examples of using anecdotes. As we wrote about a few weeks ago, someone on the blog argued the world isn’t getting safer because North Korea is a dictatorship. Next, we had a comment on Facebook that the world isn’t getting safer for cartoonists. Looking at the statistics and larger trends instead of isolated anecdotes, the world is getting more democratic and safer for expressions of free speech.

(In response to my question about the larger statistics on cartoonist deaths, the Faceboook commentator brought up gun control.)

Using anecdotes isn’t limited to internet commentators. Take Elizabeth Kolbert (who I love, especially for her work on the environment) in her review for The New Yorker (a magazine I adore) of The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker. She opens by describing the mass shooting in Norway a few years ago, an anecdote. But homicides in Europe are down over the last 50 years, last 100 years and last 500 years. This anecdote doesn’t prove a thing.

Or take Ross Douthat (who I don’t love) for The New York Times (which I still kind of respect), who opens his op-ed about Pinker’s book by describing the threat posed to Coptic Christians, “They may not survive the Arab spring.” Well, that doesn’t disprove Pinker’s theory. Statistically, mass genocide is way, way down. And it’s not even a good anecdote: the Coptic Christians survived the Arab spring.

This blog post, by professor Christian Davenport, counters the “world is getting safer” theory by arguing, “After looking at political violence data for about 20 years and witnessing Darfur, the DRC, and Rwanda over the last few decades, I have my doubts.” First off, Davenport should have stopped the sentence at “looking at political violence data” then cited that data. But he uses the anecdotal example about violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to debunk Pinker. Using upper estimates, about 5.4 million people died in their various civil wars that closed the twentieth century, or less than 10% of the country’s population.

Was that really worse than Belgian colonialism at the close of the nineteenth century?

According to scholars, ten million people died under Belgian rule from 1885 to 1908 or 20% of the country. In both absolute and relative terms, shockingly, even Congo has witnessed a decrease in violence. (And the Congo Civil war was the deadliest war the world had seen since World War II.) For a conflict scholar who has studied the region, he should know that. Of course, he didn’t witness that devastation with his own eyes and society didn’t have cameras to capture it either.

And I can keep going, citing Andrew Brown in The Guardian (“This news [that wars are less common] must come as a relief to the inhabitants of Iraq.”) or the blog Utopia or Dystopia (“Regardless of tragedies such as the horrendous school shooting at Newtown...”) or Frank Hoffman in War on the Rocks. The website World Beyond War has an entire article that cites a lot of numbers about deaths in American wars, but doesn’t analyze a single trend.

Edward S. Herman and David Peterson only use anecdotes to debunk Pinker, the more American the anecdote the better. They write, “Whereas in Pinker’s view there has been a “Long Peace” since the end of the Second World War, in the real world there has been a series of long and devastating U.S. wars”. I’m pretty sure those wars are included in Pinker’s data about battle deaths, and I’m also pretty sure there were devastating wars (American and not) before that time period.

The problem with anecdotes is that they’re just that, anecdotes. They don’t prove trends. As we pointed out earlier, saying “The world is getting safer” isn’t saying “Violence is extinct.”

Again, think about the “mean world syndrome”. Many of these critics wouldn’t have anecdotes to open their writing without mass media. Andrew Brown, from England, cites the Newtown massacre in America for a newspaper based in England. Elizabeth Kolbert, for the New Yorker, cites an example in Norway. Would either of these writers be able to use these examples without mass communication? Probably not, which is why they think violence is unchanging.

Step away from the coverage, look at the numbers and you’ll see, yes, the world is getting safer.

six comments

I invite On V readers to read the first part and last paragraph of Kolbert’s article to decide for themselves if Kolbert uses anecdotes to try to disprove Pinker/the “world is getting safer” theory. She is. (She also cites the Holocaust. Earlier, she cites the Congo Civil war, again without placing in context.)

There’s a fine line between providing examples to the reader because this makes a text readable (and turns an essay into a book that you can sell) and anecdotal evidence.

I don’t know the books mentioned here, but I did observe that many authors prefer to stay on the level of examples, exceptions and plausibility checks in popular literature.
Scientific literature is more about counting, scoring, statistic analysis with measurement of statistical significance, data tables etc.

The problem is probably that popular literature authors are being taken seriously beyond their appropriate level: Inspiring, waking interest, calling in question.

Some elaboration:
This is an example for when I personally used an anecdote as evidence against a notion:
And I still support this. That’s because my expectation for a proper C&C regime is that it would not fail in such a situation catastrophically. People with much lower expectations would not consider a single provided exception as fatal to the concept.

What OnV wrote is different; it’s about a trend, and trends are indeed a classic case for empirical support or refutation. Best with long timelines (decades) and many elements (countries), and with the typical statistical measurements, including confidence and significance.

@ SO – You point out why this happens: incidents/examples/anecdotes of violence often make for a great opening hook to an article.

The problem, though, is that someone arguing the opposite, doesn’t have access to similar anecdotes.

But take this example from Utopia or Dystopia, “Regardless of tragedies such as the horrendous school shooting at Newtown, Pinker wants to us know that things are not as bad as they might seem, that in the aggregate we live in the least violent society to have ever existed in human history.”

To me, that’s a completely illogical sentence.

Though we didn’t explicitly write it above, I’ll cite it here: a sitting US sentator threw a snowball on the Senate floor to disprove global warming.

These writers are throwing snowballs to disprove the idea the world is getting safer.

The gilding of the past and beshitting of the present day has been my white whale for some time. I’m 41, started kindergarten in 79, and every day of elementary school in the 80’s was a lesson in just how completely destroyed our minds were by TV. We were less observant than kids of the past. We had memories displaced by fantasy. Our imaginations were not as good. We were desensitized to violence. Now I’m old, and when someone my age says the exact same shit about today’s youth, my head explodes a little every time. I’m like “motherfuker!! you are not qualified to worry about somebody’s cognitive development. yours was destroyed by TV!!”

I’ve been meaning to write an essay about this syndrome, closely related to mean world syndrome, is always steadily declining world syndrome.

As we reach my age, we start to decline, and we become aware of our decline, and we project that fear of degrading abilities onto the world around us rather than own the real fear for our own shrinking future. This is the first ingredient.

Next we have the gilding of the past. We also look back on the days when we didn’t have to worry about a mortgage and think of how much simpler those days were and project our own simple life onto the world of that time with no regard to the actual record of what was happening then. The way things were done back then, like getting the news from newsprint, those are the standard of right and wrong, and all departures from those ways are evidence of general decline.

Next we see something bad happen in the news, and we say “bad things are happening these days!” And we fail to consider how much data there is on bad things happening in grandpa’s day or make any comparison because there is a long tradition of old farts looking at the present and seeing steady decline, and always being taken seriously. This tradition contributes to the feedback loop by giving everyone confidence to say negative things about the present day knowing nobody will question it. If I say “the world is safer today.” People will either dismiss me as crazy or ask me to back that up with some facts and reasoning. If I say “the world just keeps getting scarier.” Nobody questions that due to the tradition of old people calling “decline” and never getting called on it.

Old men complaining about the soft or rotten youth is a VERY old story: