Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

What’s the Plural of Anecdote?

Something very special has been threatened with the rise of weblogs, but don’t be worried. It’s simply the natural order of truth and common sense.

One of the most difficult parts of producing online material, as the Frigid Wonk well knows, is properly representing facts. It takes more than merely linking to the source of a particular reference — you must provide context and fairly represent what is said. Leaving it to the reader to discover that the context is deliberately or completely skewed can’t be easily excused.

That’s why a recent report on a serious claim merits fuller investigation than has been given it.

Jurist, a respectable and serious purveyor of online information, has recently run a report on a purported increase in desertions from the British army.

According to Jurist, this increase, reported by the BBC, has reached 1,000 total deserters since the beginning of the campaign, as annually recorded:

A total of 134 deserted in 2003, 229 in 2004, 377 in 2005, and 189 so far in 2006, up from 86 in 2001, and 118 in 2002.

Which looks like a significant change.

The problem is that the numbers aren’t the total desertions, but the total number of deserters still missing, as stated here by the BBC — the very report to which the Jurist piece refers.

The difference is highly significant. Deserters don’t just wander back home and resume a normal life — they have to go on the run. Consequently, one would expect them to be found over time. Hence, a simple application of common sense dictates that if desertion rates remain roughly constant or even drop slightly, the number remaining at large would be higher in later years than in earlier ones.

But ignore that, as well as the fact that war seems likely to increase desertions anyway, because there’s sounder evidence than either common sense or properly labelled statistics. There’s purely anecdotal evidence by interested parties:

An increase in Iraq-related desertions is nonetheless supported by anecdotal evidence from Iraq war resisters in the UK and their associates, including the lawyer for former Flight Lieutenant Malcolm Kendall-Smith [JURIST news archive], recently dismissed from the military and sentenced to eight months in prison [JURIST report] for refusing to return to service in Iraq, and former SAS member Ben Griffin [JURIST report], who told the BBC that “There’s a lot of dissent in the Army about the legality of war and concerns that they’re spending too much time there.”

As an old colleague of the Wonk’s once put it: the plural of anecdote is not data.

But surely, a cry goes up, the government, too, is an interested party; and they have an interest in providing false statistics as surely as the war protestors have one in falsely interpreting statistics.

Only too true, but aside from providing a slightly different (and perhaps even unjustifiedly alarmist) headline for the daily dose on the conflict in Iraq (government still defensive, protestors still opposed, if you’re not caught up), the story reveals no new salvo for either side. Morale and recruitment were already known to be down, and the army (an interested party, and the same one denying an increase in desertions) admitted the decline was due to the campaign.

What to do, then? Forget that “pinch of salt” nonsense — it’s not a guideline, it’s a glib line. Use a bit of common sense and realise that there’s nothing new added to the debate by this story.

If you’ve already chosen a side, this story wasn’t that likely to change your mind (if you’re pro-war, it just doesn’t seem likely that you’re swayed by army rebels). If you hadn’t, the story might persuade you. But should people be persuaded by shoddy research? Opponents of the war might suggest that what got the UK into it might just be the best way to get it out (Michael Moore, anyone?) But repeating a mistake-making process just doesn’t square with common sense.

The Frosty Wonk has a different perspective. Bull is bull, no matter how purely intended; and the plural of anecdote is urban legend.

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