The Allure of an Anecdote

COLUMN By Matthew Dowd

I remember so well during the midst of campaigns being in meetings where folks would report in that we were going to carry Ohio or Michigan because a huge crowd showed up for a rally. I would say that is a very welcome anecdote but the polling shows us down by five.

I get the importance of gathering individual stories or anecdotes and the power they have when told in a compelling and emotional way. But anecdotes should support data or evidence, not take the place of data.

And often times in our culture, whether it be campaigns or politicians or the media or even in our own relationships, anecdotes are used as proof of a certain position without supporting overall evidence or data. It is very difficult sometimes to find the truth when folks are presenting a series of "irrefutable" anecdotes.

In relationships, we often create a story we want to believe, and even though the overwhelming body of evidence suggests otherwise, we search out that anecdote that will support our story. We could be being mistreated or disregarded in a relationship, but we love to tell the story of the great present someone gave us as evidence all is well. And we put great importance in the anecdote and give it tremendous power, even more force than a huge body of evidence that runs counter to the anecdote.

I have watched this anecdote-driven process unfold in the course of the discussion related to the launch of the website for the Affordable Care Act. As numerous problems have been revealed and the overwhelming body of evidence shows major technological problems, the administration rolled out anecdotal stories of successful people signing up and being happy. As if this was supposed to convince folks that all is well.

And those opposing Obamacare have been equally driven by the anecdote. In a desire to find fault wherever possible and convince folks that the economy is doomed because of the reform of health insurance, anecdotal stories have been brought to everyone's attention that is supposed to signify a broader based problem.

And often these anecdotes are not supported by overall data.

Many in the media have been guilty of this anecdotal process searching for stories for or against Obamacare, finding some individual who experienced something bad or good, and presenting this to the public as if it represented the trend or data that exists overall. And while compelling and with a tremendous ability to be repeated (go viral, as we say), many of these anecdotes do not represent an overall reading of the entire situation.

It is so easy to get caught up into the power of the anecdote, whether it be personal or in looking at politics. I remember so well folks covering the McCain-Palin campaign (and those working on the campaign), reporting on the huge and enthusiastic crowds Sarah Palin was getting right before Election Day, as if this was supposed to tell us they had a chance to win.

I told many of my media friends at the time that is an interesting individual piece of data and a nice anecdote, but it doesn't matter unless objective evidence supports it.

I believe in the immense power of storytelling and the need for the discovery of anecdotes that can connect people with what is going on in the world. But folks in politics and those of us in the media do not serve the public well unless those anecdotes are supported by a broad objective read of the evidence.

The administration, the Republicans and we media folks should reflect on the body of evidence in an objective way before we repeat anecdotes that, while emotional, are not supported by the data.

And this lesson applies equally for all of us in our personal lives. It is much better to look at life in a clear-eyed and open way, and embrace those anecdotes that tell the story of what is, as opposed to what we want to believe.

An anecdote is a distracting fiction or a dodge or spin when the evidence points in another direction. And when supported by objective evidence, there is nothing more powerful than a good anecdote.

There you have it.

Matthew Dowd is an ABC News analyst and special correspondent.

Opinions expressed in this column do not reflect the views of ABC News.