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Beware of anecdotes

We're addicts for "inspiring" anecdotes and stories

Beware of anecdotes, even and especially when they are true.

Stories about persistence: the first type of dangerous anecdotes

The first type of dangerous anecdotes are the ones that glorify persistence.

John's persistence

"John suffered through twenty years of an unhappy marriage until, with his abiding commitment and a willingness to tolerate both the suffering of himself and his wife, he and his wife were able to finally enjoy a relatively peaceful relationship together."

What's missing from this picture are the stories of all the people who suffered through their marriage until they died, never able to find surcease of their sorrow and bitterness with each other. What's also missing in this story is its assumption that the value of the result outweighs the costs and risks incurred in the process to get to that result. This is the assumption that our Now must tolerate the process so that our Next, often backed up by our Others, can get what they want. Additionally, we are most importantly missing the stories of all the people who quit when the quitting was good and were eternally grateful that they choose the courage to do that.

Mary's perseverance

"Mary never gave up on her goal to become a tenured professor and she was finally able to do it after 26 years of doing whatever it took to make it happen. Whenever we're thinking of giving up, we should think of Mary."

What we don't hear are all the stories of people who endured years of frustration and disappointment holding on to their "dream" and never achieving it and died feeling like they never accomplished anything of importance. More to the point, we also don't hear of all the stories of people who paid attention to the early warning signs and choose courage to give up early on their "dream" and then go on to do something that was easy to enjoy the journey of and become fulfilled and successful at it.

Just look at the benefits in this one case (while ignoring all the costs in this case as well as all the other cases with a different outcome)

Our mind is built to fall for this inspirational story ruse. We continually allow ourselves to be duped by both the cherry-picking fallacy and the survivorship bias. Let's throw in the confirmation bias, the commitment bias, and the sunk cost bias, along with a few others and we've got a recipe that would seduce even geniuses into stumbling through life, again and again, falling for these stories and anecdotes about the glories of persistence, often reinforced by cautionary tales that vilify giving up and quitting.

Stories about effectiveness: the second type of dangerous anecdotes

These stories mislead us, even when they seem to be backed up by statistics.

It could be a story about someone who had cancer and did X and their cancer went into remission. It could be a story about people who graduated from Y university and then had successful careers. It could be a cautionary tale about people who took LSD and it destroyed their lives. It could a story that your sister-in-law told you about a new device she used that gave her relief from her back pain. These stories give little if any evidence of whether doing something or not doing something would provide you will similar benefits.

Even stories providing statistics often suffer from the cherry-picking or survivorship bias. 

We need stories

But we also need to be careful what actionable conclusions we draw from them. 

You may notice that I use stories to illustrate principles. But I am clear, and I hope you are too, that these stories do not prove the principle or principles that I am illustrating. In most cases, except for some principles inside the NFS toolkit, the proofs of the principles that I share with you on this site are based on deduction, not induction.

Proof by induction

To prove something by induction, to a certain level of needed or desired reliability, you must collect a lot of data under carefully controlled conditions with clearly specified boundaries of applicability. Most medical studies and experiments attempt to do this by conducting double-blind, randomized controlled trials. 

 

Masquerading as inductive proofs

Anecdotes and stories are either intended to be or we take them to be some sort of inductive proof. Even if several examples are provided, we can still be duped by the various biases noted along with being taken in by the clustering illusion. 

"It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so."

-somebody, maybe Mark Twain

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