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Is anecdotal evidence enough to counter a broad generalization?

I just had an argument with someone who asked for a scientific study to back up what I was arguing for in order to counter their broad generalization, but no such study exists.

I am pretty sure that they knew what they were doing and were going to make an appeal to ignorance from that but anecdotal evidence is all I could offer.

  • I made an edit which you may roll back or continue editing. You can see the versions by clicking on the "edited" link above. Welcome to this SE! I don't have an answer, but maybe someone does. Anecdotal evidence is still evidence and close to a case study. – Frank Hubeny Sep 24 '18 at 13:50
  • Doesn't it matter if the broad generalization is a statistical statement (f.e. about the group average) or if it is the assigning of an attribute to every element of a group. In that regard the answer depends on your understanding of the term "generalization". – CaZaNOx Sep 24 '18 at 15:16
  • In this case it was not a statistical statement. It was a person making assertions about the reason why people do certain things. – J. Tanin Sep 24 '18 at 17:10
  • Can you give an example of what you mean to clarify your question? If you mean that the other person was saying all Xs are Ys and you had anecdotal evidence that suggests that there is an X who is not a Y, then obviously that refutes the generalization. But I'm not sure if that's what you have in mind. – Eliran Sep 24 '18 at 18:30
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    No, it is not. At least if "anecdotal" implies unreliable it can not be taken to conclusively establish even a single counterexample. But this was a wrong move on your part altogether, instead of attempting to refute the claim and getting yourself in trouble you should have instead challenged the basis for the claim itself. The burden of proof is on the claimer, so you complicated your position by assuming a burden you did not have to. You could still retort "do you have a study confirming why "triggered" people do what they do?", but that looks defensive. – Conifold Sep 24 '18 at 22:04
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What follows is a consideration of the kind of issues that surrounds this kind of dispute that aims at allowing one to think through the subject matter.

The problem with this question is that the subject matter is not KNOWN somewhere to an expert in the way that the habits of a mountain marmot in a specific region are known to some expert. It is not a mater of fixed behavior. There are authorities who are assumed to have some expertise in such maters as statistical evaluations, but the application of this knowledge is not itself objective. We have to appeal to authority.

The common authoritative view, at least the one one runs into the most often in a university, runs: "the plural of anecdote is not data". Why is "anecdata" defective? This could be legitimate if it involves a field where an exact training in observation and techniques are involved, what someone once saw happen, and what a trained biologist can reproduce in a cell culture, may be quite different matters. On the other hand, the general data, when in a political matter, is set off against an anecdote, the issue is not (primarily, and for the most part) whether the things really were seen, or whether some matter was correctly observed, but whether it was an outlier, a rare case, and not the normal or most widespread case. It may be true that you experienced muggings ten times in Chicago, but that does not show that muggings are more frequent in Chicago than in other cities, it may point to your habit of murky dealings concerning illicit materials and treacherous persons.

The other thing is, in a political issue, how much you care about something matters. So weight rather than number can come in. Some experiences are more formative than others, more far reaching in their life consequence.

If someone claims something general, let us say, that antibiotics are dangerous, that may be true in the sense that they can be misused, that they require responsible use, but it isn't enough to say I know someone who died from their misuse in a hospital if what one wants is to show a statistical preponderance that proves their standardized use is dangerous and that they should be removed from hospitals or their standard use radically modified. One case could simply be the "exception that proves the rule".

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Is anecdotal evidence enough to counter a broad generalization?

The answer depends on the breadth of the generalization. Suppose the claim is that 85% of foodies prefer carrots and 15% prefer peas. Then an anecdote about a foodie who prefers peas does nothing to challenge the validity of the overall generalization.

But if the claim is that all foodies prefer carrots, then an anecdote about a foodie who prefers peas has a lot more power.

Scientific studies can certainly help clarify things; the very purpose is to generalize based on evidence. But the inability of later researchers to replicate earlier results is a pervasive and difficult problem. The studies themselves have to be evaluated.

The discussion that you participated in has its own problem of definition. Under what circumstances could a neutral observer conclude that a person had been triggered? They start to shout? They are silent? They throw a punch? They walk away? Without some minimum criteria, the value of such a study would likely dissolve into a collection of anecdotes.

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