Saturday, November 17, 2007

Again anecdotes versus data

Yet again another example where anecdotes can overwhelm any kind of statistical study. There is sometimes a frenzy over anedoctal evidence and when calm eventually prevails, rather than learning from this experience, the public chooses to ignore the facts or statistics. When the issue comes up again, all they will remember are the anecdotes because they are sometimes so powerful. This is from Rubin's In An Uncertain World on IRS abuses:

... throughout the hearings, others tried to turn a few abusive episodes into a misleading impression about the IRS as a whole. No one cared that 205 million returns were processed every year without any known dishonesty or corruption. Once the idea took root that the IRS was an out-of-control agency gratuitously abusing taxpayers, reason and proportion could not be brought to the issue. ... The problem is that owhen one person is abused -- and some people really were -- a government official who tries to paint a more complete picture simply won't be heard. ... What I never I understood in any of these firestorms is why some enterprising reporter didn't pursue the other side of the story out of self-interest. .. for the most part, the coverage seemed utterly one sided, with at best an offsetting paragraph or two ... (p. 209-10)

One example was an editorial in The Washington Post that accused members of Congress of having "assaulted and weakened" the IRS -- which was true -- but neglected to mention how the Post itself and other news organizations had contributed to the process. (p. 211)

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