The monthly Readers’ Digest magazine and the related hardcover “condensed books” were the bulk of the bathroom library at my house where I grew up during the 1950s. It is from there that I learned of this word “anecdote” at an early age. Reader’s Digest told me every month that if I had an “amusing anecdote,” I could make big money (sometimes over $100 if I recall correctly) if they selected one that I would send in, to be published as a space filler at the end of stories or in a one-page anecdote collection entitled “Laughter is the Best Medicine” and the like. But alas, I had no amusing anecdotes in my life worthy of publication.
I have realized that what is bugging me the most about the irrational ways Americans are reacting to enforced coronavirus mitigations and vaccine mandates is that, while much of my adult life has been spent sorting out reliable and actionable information from real data, so much of the country seems to prefer governance by anecdote, either amusing or decidedly not.
Witness the recent furor over a Nikki Minaj social media assertion that she opposed Covid vaccinations because “her cousin’s friend in Trinidad” claimed the vaccine gave him swollen testicles. Despite an official denial of such a case by the Trinidadian government, the scientists’ extensive data and millions of real-life injection subjects have proven to be weak players against these strange stories.
While I was buying furniture recently, the salesman told me how his truck driver refused to get vaccinated because he heard it would make him sterile, an anecdote along the same lines as the Minaj story but much less amusing, and yet no more true. Reports of the vaccine making you magnetic or containing location-tracking chips? (Psst. That’s your iPhone.) Claims that masks are poisoning you with carbon monoxide? (Explain that to operating room physicians and nurses.) Disgraced but pardoned General Michael Flynn now claims the government will put Covid vaccine in salad dressing. There is literally no end, and no rationality, to “bad healthcare advice by anecdote.”
“Facts is facts”
The data here, on the other hand, is overwhelmingly in favor of vaccines and other mitigations. Over 6 BILLION Covid vaccine shots have now been administered worldwide, with a negative incident rate that is orders of magnitude less than the odds of harm from a Covid-19 infection. States with higher vaccination rates and better anti-Covid mitigations continue to show far fewer deaths from Covid. Effective mitigations move the odds by a lot. The political party of your governor may be a cause to you having a 4 times greater chance to die from Covid-19 than if you were in a mitigation-promoting state. Anecdotes won’t keep your loved ones from dying from Covid. Vaccines will.
Deciding elections by anecdote
Soon-to-be-ex-lawyer Sidney Powell continues to get television airtime throwing out one crazy, easily-disproven anecdote after another proclaiming massive election conspiracies robbing Donald Trump of the presidency in the 2020 election. The most conservative courts in the country have already thrown out every one of her vote-challenging cases as ludicrous. Very recently she alleged that the unfortunate victim of a multiple-car accident, an aide to failed Georgia Senate candidate Kelly Loeffler, was somehow murdered by Democrats, and that this is why Loeffler lost her run-off election in early 2021.
Meanwhile, when you do real audits by real professionals tabulating real data, you would learn, for instance, that split tickets and under-votes (where a person voted for a local Republican candidate but voted for either Joe Biden or “none of the above”) were of sufficient quantity in Georgia to account for Trump’s loss there. This is the testimony of Georgia Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in interviews in advance of his upcoming book, “Integrity Counts,” which is largely the story of his data-based rebuffs of wild and wilder anecdotes alleging vote fraud conspiracies and attempts by outside political operatives to get him to change documented and audited results.
Two untenable choices
Meanwhile in Florida, anti-mitigation Governor Ron DeSantis had to go all the way to UCLA to find a new state Surgeon General who advocates medical fringe theories on Covid transmission and risks. Dr. Joseph Ladapo will likely find, as his predecessor did, that he has to choose between only two paths. He can choose the path of medical research and data, which admittedly can get a bit muddy, but moves toward better and better convergence to back up recommendations. Inevitably, however, this path will lead him away from the political ambitions of the governor, as was the fate of Iowa’s state medical director and epidemiologist Dr. Caitlin Pedati, who had to leave the state in order to escape an increasingly untenable position as conditions have worsened under Governor Kim Reynolds.
The second alternative for these state medical directors, as well as secretaries of state in charge of voting in red states, is to “embrace the crazy” as the anecdotes get ever crazier. That will not end well. Mr. Rathensperger, like stalwart establishment conservative Senator Liz Cheney from Wyoming, is currently facing the wrath of a raging ex-president and his anecdote-laden followers, far too many of whom have guns and make personal threats.
Data can be messy. At best, it may give you only probabilistic answers. But that is life. It is also possible to distort statistics to enable a lie, which the Tobacco Industry did for many years to disguise the smoking-cancer link. But in a world of open data and open scientific dialogue, statistical tricks don’t survive very long. And the “data” that election and vaccine conspiracists trot out to make their case typically make statisticians cry.
You can also look at alleged conspiracies from a “data” perspective. It is very hard to find even one alleged “grand conspiracy” that has proven true or sustained itself, simply because of the exponentially-growing number of people who need to “be in on” the evil plot for it to be sustained, each linkage a weak spot in the lie. The odds are against you. And smaller conspiracies such as organized crime require the sustaining of an intimate cult-like “family” held together by threats and an Omertà “code of silence” which may last only until the indictments start coming. The U.S. has seen only one such “small-c” conspiracy succeed long enough to rise into political power in recent years, and hopefully at least some of its anti-democracy plotters will be brought to justice.