An Anecdote

A few days ago, I spent my afternoon hiking the trail at Mud Lake. It’s one of my favourite locations for photography. In the winter, the squirrels and chickadees are abundant, but every now and then I encounter a languid porcupine, a tenacious woodpecker, or I’m graced by the scarlet robes of his Eminence, the cardinal. 

As my senses are fully engrossed in the surrounding beauty of nature, my mind is unfettered from the shackles of attention, fixation, and intentional thought. It’s during these times that my heart dilates, creating a space for my soul to enter and wander. Problems that tortured me just moments ago are suddenly forgotten, and ideas that were barely on my radar resolve into sharp focus.

During this particular hike, I started to think about the word “anecdote” and the thought consumed me. 

As someone formally trained in the social sciences, the word “anecdote” carries many negative connotations: baggage, error, subjectivity, emotion, irrationality. An anecdote is a qualitative datum that can only be used in the early stages of theory development, but would later have to pass through the wringer of “rigorous” quantitative research. When I say the words “quantitative research” my back straightens, my left eyebrow rises, my mouth stiffens contemptuously, and I stare down the barrel of my nose.

Unsurprisingly, one of the definitions for “anecdote” is: an account regarded as unreliable or hearsay

If you should bother to dissect this word into its etymological roots, you’d find a 17th century term referring to “secret or private stories” or perhaps “witticisms”. A deeper incision would reveal its Medieval organs. From the Greek, anekdota or “things unpublished.” The organ can then be carved into three segments: an – for “not”, ek – for “out”, and didonai – “to give.” 

Re-assembled: not out to give. Because, perhaps, it’s only meant to keep for oneself. 

Since the explosion of post-enlightenment empiricism (I’m pretending to have a historical grasp of such things), it appeared that our private, phenomenological, lived-experiences were surely destined for the dust-heap or, at the very least, shelved among frivolous works of fiction. Somewhere in between children’s picture books and Harlequin romance novels.

Maybe I’m not strictly speaking about anecdotes. This stream of consciousness seems to be more about stories and personal accounts. Beyond strict definitions though, I think you have a sense of what I mean.

Some would say that justified, true, belief – the “good” sort of knowledge – only contains that which is useful to everyone. An anecdote or story is useful only to oneself, with the exception of its entertainment value, of course.

At least, that’s where we were headed, it seems, until we found out that anecdotes could also be valuable to everyone. Lived experience is testimony. It’s the perspective of one who bears witness. A personal account can be the antidote to false beliefs that are informed by aggregate data (e.g., that Black people are less intelligent based on lower aggregate IQ scores). A single case can be the exception to the rule, a true measure of the human condition when it’s not shorn of all its…humanity. 

The psychological sciences take much pride in telling us where a person is (in relation to others), and where they are likely to go (all things being equal, if that ever happens). I suspect the field aspires to one day achieve the level of predictive accuracy attained by the great psychohistorian, Hari Seldon. Yet, even the fictional domain of Psychohistory understood its limits:

It is a strange science. … it proved itself the most powerful instrument ever invented for the study of humanity. Without pretending to predict the actions of individual humans, it formulated definite laws capable of mathematical analysis and extrapolation to govern and predict the mass action of human groups.

Isaac Asimov, Foundation and Empire.

Sometimes, I worry that the social sciences are brushing against these boundaries. Meddling in things that are not meant to be meddled in. Of course, jobs, careers, and reputations are at stake, so the band plays on. 

Still, the unbridled human will rarely comply with the linearity of predictive models that fail to meaningfully factor in, for example, where you want to go, how you wish to get there, why you choose your course, who you’ll meet along the way, and that you may decide to suddenly change. It forces motivation, attitude, personality, behavior, and association into scales that vary along one, two, three, maybe six factors. Bullshit.

Our stories are a discursive web of changes and chances, which come into focus only when told by ourselves, for ourselves, in the company of trusted companions. Our personal narrative is subject to sudden leaps and bounds, sharp turns and knee jerk reactions, and never in isolation, but through the dialogue we have in community and with others who transform or inspire us along the way.

Our transformation is located in the imagined and re-imagined stories we tell ourselves.

Quantitative models seek to coarse-grain that messy cloud of life into a smooth line of risk prediction and mitigation. The professionalization of behaviour prediction creates a reflexive, self-fulfilling system trapping subjects within it, like mice, bending their behaviours to conform to lab-manufactured expectations — furthering the enterprise of de-humanization. It’s the language of insurance claims and crop yields.

Show a people as one thing, only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

In this technocratic system of human management, a heritage of rich cultural teachings becomes impersonal standardized programs. Delicious traditional cuisines become nutrition standards. Friendship and community support become mental health services. Connection, identity, and belonging, become regimented allocations of human contact. Healthy confrontation and emotional dialogue become policing and legal recourse.

I’m not a car, I’m not an apple tree. I don’t care how the assessment scores my past, evaluates my present, or predicts my future. This way of doing things is wrong. When it comes to my life every detail of my story matters.

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