Thursday 19 May 2016
Everyone should already know that, when available, good statistical data trumps personal anecdotes. E.g. "My friend died in a plane crash" does not mean you should stop flying, since we know overall it's actually very safe. It's so important to teach this to one's children.
But having said that, I think personal anecdotes are underrated. They're more reliable than most of the news media (by which I include social media channels).
Modern media tend to report anecdotes, and a much more biased sample of reality than your personal experience. Economic forces force media to report the most extreme examples of anything, whether it's headlines to sell papers or attract clicks, or a clip sensational enough to "go viral". Our media intake is also strongly biased by filter bubbles and our own source selection bias. OK, we all know this already, but it's incredibly difficult to internalize. Everywhere I look, including at myself, people see something extreme in the media and think "person with characteristic X doing Y? So that's what those people are like" ... etc.
In the absence of good data, I think my personal experiences --- the people and situations I have interacted with intimately --- are a more reliable guide to the world than most media impressions. Contrary to what you'd guess by reading online articles and comments, most people are not vicious. Most Americans are not mad. Most Christians are not villains.
One has to be particularly careful because good data is hard to come by and the line between good science and media anecdote is blurry :-(. The economics behind scientific work aren't that different from the media: they promote sensation and bias. Having played the game, I know scientists are adept at producing the results they and their peers want (and when they can't, they often just don't publish). It's getting better, slowly, in some fields.