Tuesday, May 03, 2005

In defense of anecdotes

What prompts this post is the discussion taking place at Yazad Jal's AnarCapLib. This would have been ideally a comment over there, but I thought perhaps this one is a bit too long for that. Do check out Yazad's post, and the comments over there.

Yazad's post starts an interesting discussion on whether or not the Indian economic reforms have benefited the poor. In particular did it help in bringing down poverty levels? The post follows Dilip D'Souza's and Yazad's Rediff columns on the same topic. An interesting question that was asked was to what extent one can trust anecdotal evidences.

I like to think that anecdotal evidences do not count. I also like to think that only figures, facts, graphs, and charts count. Then one realizes that, in real life, anecdotal evidences do matter. Many a time only anecdotal evidences matter. I found this out once again recently, when I had to write a reco for a former student. The program chair made it clear that she would like to see my "anecdotes" about the student's overall performance, and I shouldn't be stressing on the student's grades etc. Incidentally, the student was applying for an MS in Statistics! Life would be certainly much easier if everything can be put into percentages and neatly columned tables. But it's too complex for the statistical tools to tame it.

Perhaps that's one reason why having certain figures at hand do not end a debate on social issues like poverty eradication. Obviously, a sizeable population of "otherwise sane" people are not willing to buy figures of this kind in order to come to a conclusion. We do not debate election results here in India because we trust absolute headcount. The very fact that we do debate data on poverty does say that an absolute trust in such data is lacking even from the perspective of some one who endorses the data at hand.

Not to say that statistics do not tell you anything right. They do, but not always. Chances are that a majority of those who are just above that "poverty line" wouldn't buy that statistics! Also which one to buy? For instance, Narasimha Rao govt had maintained two different numbers at the same time; one was twice the other! In another instance, nine consecutive surveys do not show any reduction in poverty, but the tenth one shows a ten percentage points reduction. I believe that statistics can give you meaningful, truth-approximate results, if you care for it. I do not believe in this sort of figures in general as it's almost trivial to manipulate the starting criteria. Must say that Disraeli is often vindicated these days!

So have the reforms benefited the poor? I guess there's no blanket Yes or No answer here. Have the reforms benefited the rich, the upper middle class? You know the answer, right? Now does that say anything? Also, has the inequality increased? Or is it that equality in itself isn't a great thing to have?

Apparently, the voters do not like the reformists. Natural guess is that this is because the reforms haven't benefited the majority. The only way to sell the reforms to more and more people is to tell them that these reforms promise a bright future. But then who doesn't promise a bright future? People wouldn't buy that therefore. Do the govt figures come handy then? Perhaps not. India did shine in figures. That helped India to shine in opinion polls, but she did not, when it came to actual voting machines. Mass propaganda statistics got reflected in mass media statistics, but beyond that, statistics did not count. Perhaps in elections too, as in the case of the reco I wrote, it's anecdotal evidences that matter.

9 Comments:

At 8:50 AM, Blogger amit varma said...

Anand,

I think when Yazad said "Anecdotes don't matter", he meant that they don't matter by themselves. Of course anecdotes matter, but only in conjunction with, and as an illustration of, facts.

Dilip's anecdotes demonstrate that India is still full of poor people (stating the obvious, but stating it well). Yazad's anecdotes demonstrate that the poor have progressed far better under reforms than before, but that there is still a long way to go, and only more reforms will take us there.

Both sets of anecdotes are important, but any anecdotes that tell you reforms have been bad for India and that statism is better are selective and misleading, not backed up by any facts or data. And you can find anecdotes to illustrate just about any argument. Those are the kinds of anecdotes we should beware of; not these.

(This comment is also posted on Yazad's post.)

 
At 12:47 PM, Blogger shaun said...

so there are four types of lies now - lies, damn lies, statistics and anecdotes!

 
At 11:35 PM, Anonymous charu said...

of course anecdotes are important - but just as with statistics and numbers, out of context hey can be mde to prove any point - in fact, in social research, we advocate the use of narratives as a tool for collecting data - personal, free flowing stories as opposed to survey answers

 
At 7:46 AM, Blogger Dilip D'Souza said...

Charu, I'm glad you mention narratives. In the same vein are the attempts to record oral histories. But I'm always intrigued by how a data collector goes about collecting and recording such narratives. How do you structure questions to elicit such answers? Etc. Any thoughts?

I know this is off the topic, so apologies Anand.

 
At 6:44 PM, Blogger Suhail said...

Hello Anand (recognised me?)
Agree with you on this. Here's my post in defence of giving weightage to both numbers and anecdotes. It's in literacy v/s education context. Do drop by.

Your reco example reminds me that even in job interviews they ask concrete examples(usecases) of accomplishments, accompanying figures like : "improved quality of the product by 35%".

 
At 1:21 AM, Blogger Anand said...

Amit - You said "any anecdotes that tell you reforms have been bad for India and that statism is better are selective and misleading, not backed up by any facts or data." That's a sweeping statement. One can say the samething about anecdotes supporting reforms too, right? Anecdotes can be misleading. Statistics is even more misleading. But life, hunger, ill-health, lack of accomodation, these do not mislead. And that explains the plight of Naidus and Krishnas.

Shivam -- LOL!

Charu - Very interesting. Hope you come back and respond to Dilip's query. I'm looking forward to it too.

Dilip -- Not really off the topic, right?

Suhail -- Of course I remember you. I do check your blog once in a while. Good work there.

 
At 8:50 PM, Anonymous charu said...

oops, I did respond to Dilip's query - but since I assumed this WAS off the topic, I emailed him instead :)

 
At 3:15 PM, Blogger amit varma said...

Anand,

Amit - You said "any anecdotes that tell you reforms have been bad for India and that statism is better are selective and misleading, not backed up by any facts or data." That's a sweeping statement. One can say the samething about anecdotes supporting reforms too, right?

Of course not, because all the facts and the data back that up, and there is nothing to the contrary.

But life, hunger, ill-health, lack of accomodation, these do not mislead.

Those just tell you that there are poor people, which no one is disputing, and which is stating the obvious. They don't tell you if there are any more or any less of them.

 
At 11:37 PM, Blogger Anand said...

Amit -- Thanks for getting back. Prompted by your reply I just looked into some statistics. I'm looking at the seminal work of Deaton and Dreze. Let me just quote the percentage decline in rural poverty from 93-94 to 99-00 in some of the states.

Andhra Pradesh - 3%
Karnataka - 7%
Himachal Pradesh - 7%
Bihar - 8%
Kerala - 10%

First two are states that followed liberalisation policies. Last three are states which did not follow these policies. Now what does this statistics say? Also I would think a 3% decline has in fact resulted in an increase in poverty in absolute numbers.

Poverty will reduce only if the govt has a pro-active policy to fight it. It's wishful thinking if we believe that the rich getting richer will also result in poverty decline.

 

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