Dumb Arguments About Guns is a series devoted to examining the (il)logic of the modern debate over gun rights, gun laws, gun ownership and gun possession. The purpose of the series is to help people focus their arguments and avoid falling into the many pitfalls of the gun debate in this country. In the interest of full disclosure, my own position is that current gun laws are far too permissive. I favor greater restrictions (but not elimination) on the types of guns private citizens should be allowed to own, carry and use.Previous Diaries in this Series:
I ask that people remain polite and on topic in the comments of this diary. Please ignore overly dickish and/or excessively repetitive comments, we can only be derailed if we let ourselves get derailed.
Dumb Arguments about Guns 3: RKBA
Dumb Arguments about Guns 2: Bad Comparisons
Dumb Arguments About Guns 1: The 2nd Amendement
In my 2nd diary in this series, I discussed the differences between quantitative and qualitative research. I will not rehash all of that here. Suffice it to say that quantitative research tends to look at questions broadly through statistical analysis—it is broad but shallow. Qualitative research, on the other hand, uses interviews, participation and other more humanistic research strategies to study a smaller number of people—it is narrow but deep. Good research on social issues combines both quantitative and qualitative research.
In a simple sense, anecdotes can be viewed as type of qualitative research. That is, an anecdote reports an event that someone either experienced first-hand or heard about. Just as with any qualitative research, the value of an anecdote is the richness it provides to a discussion, its weakness is its lack of breadth. A good anecdote will provide insight into the context being discussed, illuminate the subtleties of a situation and distill particularly complex social phenomena to their essence. In a good argument, anecdotes will be combined with the results of quantitative research—with the quantitative evidence used illuminate broad patterns and the anecdotes to provide insight into what might be the underlying, complex foundation on which the broad patterns rise.
There are several ways that an anecdote can be used badly. The first would be using an anecdote to refute, rather than augment, a quantitative argument. For example, if a well-conducted quantitative study reveals that 3% of people who buy guns legally use them for crimes (note: I made this number up for the example), a counterargument about how a neighbor bought a gun legally then shot his girlfriend does not refute the original quantitative study. That is, the neighbor would be part of the 3% who buy guns legally than use them illegally. The one case where an anecdotal evidence can be used to refute a quantitative study is when that study claims that something is always, or never, true. Thus, if someone claims that no legal gun owners ever shoot their girlfriends', an anecdote can prove that at least one did. Truth be told, however, few quantitative studies are ever absolute, so the use of anecdotes to refute universal claims is rarely necessary. So, as a general rule, anecdotes can rarely be used to refute well-conducted quantitative studies.
Moving beyond this rather simplistic misuse of anecdotes, there are several other qualities that make anecdotes good or bad, effective or ineffective. For the most part, following from the definition posted above, these qualities center on how interesting anecdotes are. For an anecdote to be interesting, it needs to be deep, compelling and rich. An anecdote needs to provide more than what is already known from quantitative studies. Critically, the depth and power of the anecdote is not necessarily based on the power the event on the person who experienced it. Just because some event was very important personally, it does not necessarily make it a great anecdote. Rather, the power of an anecdote is based on the degree to which the anecdote illuminates an argument.
Bad Use of Anecdotal Evidence (note: I made this one up):Clearly, the person whose sister was shot would be justifiably traumatized, but that is not how the quality of the anecdote is judged. The problem with this anecdote is that it provides no more information than what was already known by the stats—it provides no additional depth of understanding about the specific nature of the depression, what sorts of treatment were used, and how.
Studies have shown that 65% of the family members of people who experienced gun violence experienced clinical depression in the following year. The year after my sister was shot, I was clinically depressed.
Good Use of Anecdotal Evidence:Contrast the bad use of anecdotal evidence with a good use of anecdotal evidence, here in the form of a photo-diary by DaNang65. In his diary, DaNang65 shows photos of the garbage and spent casing of “responsible” gun owners, suggesting that perhaps they are not as responsible as they depict themselves. Critically, these are photos of a single pass, on a single day. It is a personal anecdote, but one that has real depth and provides real insight. Could his diary benefit from further quantitative study? Yes. Quantitative studies could show how prevalent the sorts of behaviors are and greatly inform the question as to how much legal gun owners drink, litter and vandalize at informal gun ranges. But the numbers will never have the same impact or provide the same sort of understanding as looking at DaNang65’s photos.
Redington Pass (photo heavy) by DaNang65
When used appropriately, anecdotes are a legitimate form of argumentation in the gun debate. That said, do not use anecdotes to refute quantitative studies, rather use anecdotes to fill in the blanks and flesh out the results of quantitative studies. Do not assume that simply because an event was transformative for you, that it makes a great anecdote. Sadly, some tragedies are uninformative—they are just tragedies. In fact, often a good anecdote tells of a small event, an otherwise normal event, like the garbage strewn on an isolated dirt road. In essence, anecdotes are little stories meant to inform an argument—they should be narrow and deep, compelling and rich, and above all else, anecdotes must be part of larger discussions that employ diverse qualitative, quantitative and logical arguments.