Anecdotes Don’t Prove Anything

Anecdotes should not be used to decide public policy.

I’ll include a few examples:

 Two friends from out of town were pulled over by the police. They were looking for my place in the late evening, and possibly driving a little hesitantly, as you might in an unfamiliar residential neighborhood in the dark.

One of them, the passenger, is an African American. He was in town from Washington, D.C., and was going to lead a workshop at WWU the next morning.

I am white. I spent at least 10 minutes earlier that same night parking in someone else’s driveway, then “scouting” the exterior of two nearby homes, climbing up their front steps, entering one of their backyards. I did all of this undisturbed by the police, and any of the neighbors.

Even multiple anecdotes do not prove anything.

 My teacher was walking across the WWU campus one afternoon. He had a long, unusual bag slung over his shoulder, and had his hood up. Campus police stopped and questioned him.

Oh, he is an African American.

I walk across the WWU campus with a similar bag multiple times a week. Often people ask me if it contains a fishing pole, or a bow and arrows. The police never have.

(Side fact: the overwhelming majority of campus shooters is white — just like me!)

Anecdotes from the past should not be used to decide public policy today because things have changed.

 On February 15, 2007, some students protested the presence of military recruiters at a WWU career fair. The conversation got a little heated. One of the students was arrested, the only student who was visibly non-white.

(A side note: the director of the Viking Union at the time described himself as “the de facto champion of free expression on campus.”)

Anecdotes from the past definitely should not suggest to us that they reveal a trend — only hard facts can do that.

I also protested military recruiters at a WWU career fair, more than once. On two separate occasions, I was even asked to leave by some police officers, but I was not arrested.

People Being Killed
Anecdotes like the shooting of many unarmed African-American men and women by police officers certainly do not define every individual interaction between African-American people and police officers, when they are pulled over (like Philando Castille, who was murdered in July 2016), or even just lying down in the street with their hands in the air (like Charles Kinsey, who told police that he was a behavioral therapist caring for the autistic patient who sat next to him, and was shot in the leg, also in July of 2016).

And anyway, instances of people of color being killed by police happen in other places, certainly not in Bellingham. Well, except for Manuel Gonzales, killed on Railroad Avenue in March of 2017 by a Bellingham Police Department officer. So my friend from D.C., who was pulled over, or my teacher walking across campus with his oversized bag, should not have instinctively drawn on the wealth of anecdotes about such situations, and should have directed their minds to feel perfectly comfortable, and, in fact, welcome, in the city we call home.

So what are anecdotes good for? Anecdotes COULD cause us to challenge some of the unspoken narratives that we hold. Or they might cause us to re-examine some events in a new way. Or hearing an anecdote from someone we know might cause us to hear and believe stories from other people’s lives.

Our brains are funny like that, sometimes hearing a story from someone we can relate to impacts us more than the same story told by someone else — even if the connection to the storyteller is only skin deep (though buried under that tenuous connection are all of the assumptions about sameness and difference that we inherit from a legacy of hatred and violence that began when Christopher Columbus initiated a policy “that resulted in complete genocide” on Hispaniola, in the words of Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morrison).

Okay, one last anecdote. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. You see, I studied math at WWU, and got paid while in graduate school to be a TA (teacher’s assistant). Some of the professors would structure their classes along the lines of the “Moore method” for teaching mathematics.

The teachers never mentioned that “Moore” was Robert Lee Moore (1882 – 1974), a mathematics professor whose bigotry led him to refuse to allow African-American students into his classes, or to tell them “you are welcome to take my course, but you start with a C and can only go down from there.” (I should clarify that the “Moore method” for teaching mathematics used by my professors did NOT entail actively antagonizing students of color.)

Editor’s Note: Robert Lee Moore taught at a number of schools, but not in Bellingham. He taught at the University of Texas in Austin from 1920 until 1969.

See, this is where anecdotes could lead me astray. I might jump to the conclusion that Moore was not alone, and that the widespread discrimination within academia against African-American students (and others), particularly in mathematics, has added up to a situation in which the competition for the position that paid for my graduate studies was not particularly fierce, because a whole group of people has been actively pushed out of the field.

I might conclude that I, a white person, benefit financially over the course of my whole lifetime from other people’s oppression. And anecdotes aren’t enough evidence to prove that something like that is true. No, we would need to decide to invest some time and do some serious research, such as reading the amicus curiae brief of the American Sociological Association to the Supreme Court in the Grutter vs. Bollinger case, to name one possible source.

But hey, who has time for that, right? Let me tell you about the time …
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Matteo Tamburini earned a master’s degree in Mathematics from WWU in 2009. He has been teaching (and learning) mathematics at Northwest Indian College, and studying the Afro-Brasilian artform Capoeira Angola, both since 2009. Matteo serves on the board of the Whatcom Peace & Justice Center.

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