Anecdotal arguments

Glenn Greenwald has some thoughts worth considering about the fallacy of the “argument by anecdote.” He writes:

>The Ward Churchill whirlwind is one of the classic examples of this rotted genre. “Stories” of that type — which are, as I’ve noted before, perfect examples of the logical fallacy of “argument by anecdote” — are naturally attractive to lazy journalists because they enable broad political points to be made simply by focusing on single anecdotes in isolation. Very little analytical or journalistic work needs to be done in order to covert those anecdotes and cliches into a sensationalistic, attention-generating story.

While I think he’s correct in his assessment of the problem with that sort of arguing. I wonder however if the argument by anecdote is either (1) another way of saying “hasty generalization” or (2) it is a rhetorical specification of the same or maybe (3) something else.

Argument for (1) and (2): To focus on single anecdotes (usually outrageous, as Greenwald correctly notes) isn’t by itself reasoning badly. To infer from the single anecdotes to some broader generalization is reasoning badly. In this sense the argument by anecdote is a kind of fallacy of weak induction.

Argument for (3): on the other hand, the difference with the argument by anecdote is that usually that generalization is not made explicitly. It is merely implied that the anecdote is representative. So in a sense, the outrageous anecdote distracts us from the more pertinent question (and the one that has been assumed) as to whether that anecdote represents anything at all (which it doesn’t). In this sense, it’s a kind of fallacy of relevance.

Anyone have any thoughts on this?

5 thoughts on “Anecdotal arguments”

  1. we already coined “strawherring” and “bushmanning;” why not an “anecdotal herring?”

  2. It does seem a type of red herring, but there’s more involved. I’ve always been a big fan of the edict, “Anicdotal evidence is no evidence at all.” I’ve seen this type of hasty generalisation called the “Person Who Fallacy” as in, “I know a person who . . .”

  3. Good catch Nevyn!

    I think it really depends on the context.
    I think an argument scheme is only a fallacy when it is incorrectly applied. In the case of the context of the snippet you provided, the Argument by anecdote could be a hasty generalization. In other contexts in support of a proposition or conclusion they could be a variant of one of the following.
    – a fallacy of composition if the anecdote is meant to represent an ideology of some political party
    – Poisoning the well, I don’t really like that as a fallacy name, but it is a good name for an argument strategy.
    – in a similar context it could be a fallacy of an argument from analogy
    – or it could be a fallacy of an argument from example
    – an ad hominem if it is meant to take isolated incident of poor judgment and extrapolate that to mean that poor judgment is a characteristic of this person, in a kind of an ‘impossible precision’ for behavior kind of way.

    And now my thoughts about the Article in General.
    Some other things I see in the article are charges of “Bias” of reporters, and insinuations of underlying self-Interests of the media, and a lot of Loaded language

    That article is not without its own problems with Argument schemes. “and the national media has been trained to ingest that tactic and disseminate it.” I’d like to see the backing for that. Even he can show examples, the way it is phrased, if i can one exception, i’ve refuted it.

    “That is, far and away, the tactic used most commonly by right-wing deceivers, and the national press reflexively echoes it.” I see Bill O’Reilly saying something similar about NBC. Tu quoque, touche

  4. I like your analysis here. For Barone, “fallacy of relevance,” “fallacy of weak induction” or “hasty generalization” all seem accurate and helpful. Using more journalistic terms, Kurtz’ problem is that his account was highly misleading, because he refused to provide the larger, directly relevant context for the facts he reported. While in his web version of the piece he quoted Huffington and linked her, he also ignored the context Huffington herself tried to provide, which would undercut him writing about the incident in the first place. I personally think Kurtz was primarily just trying to fill a column by pumping up a fake “scandal,” but sometimes reporters simply “call it wrong” as well. In Barone’s case, he’s trying to craft a more general, sweeping condemnation without factual support, and that’s more problematic and egregious to me. (It’s a more premeditated assault. 😉 )

    Honestly, most times I hear Bush speak I find myself dissecting his logical fallacies and abuses of rhetoric, but sometimes they defy easy classification, so I appreciate the accuracy and precision you strive for here.

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