Anecdotal Evidence: Absence of Anecdote
Also Known As: Do You Personally Know Anyone?
This fallacy, a variant of Anecdotal Evidence, occurs when a general claim is rejected because the person making the claim lacks a personal anecdote that would support the claim. It has the following form:
Premise 1: Person A makes general claim C.
Premise 2: Person A does not have a personal anecdote that supports claim C.
Conclusion: Claim C is false.
This is a fallacy because a lack of a personal anecdote does not serve as evidence that a general claim is false. This fallacy is thus a variant of the Anecdotal Evidence fallacy. In Anecdotal Evidence, an anecdote is accepted as evidence against a general claim, and this usually involves an explicit rejection of statistical evidence. In the Absence of Anecdote, the error is to reject a general claim because of the lack of an anecdote. These are fallacious for similar reasons: an anecdote or lack of anecdote does not prove or disprove a general claim. One common variant of the Absence of Anecdote is the Do You Personally Know Anyone?. This can be used as a rhetorical device or a fallacious argument.
As a rhetorical device, it involves asking a version of the question “do you personally know anyone who X?” with the intention of getting “no” as the answer. This can be used in good faith when X does rarely occur or does not occur at all. But even when used in good faith, rhetoric proves nothing.
For example, a person who wants to protect sharks might try to address worries about shark attacks by asking the audience if anyone has been attacked by a shark. They are betting that no one has and hope this will make their audience more receptive to their dull statistics showing that shark attacks are incredibly rare. There is an obvious risk in using this rhetorical device since it can backfire if someone answers “yes.” Psychologically, people are influenced more by anecdotes, especially vivid ones. than by dull statistics, which underlies the fallacies of Anecdotal Evidence and Misleading Vividness. In the shark example, if someone says a shark bit their arm off, this will tend to outweigh the statistical data about shark attack, at least in the minds of the audience. While the shark example shows a good faith use of this rhetorical device, it can also be used in bad faith.
When used in bad faith, the intention is to create the false impression that X is rare or even that it does not occur at all. It can also be used to create the false impression that X is not serious. For example, someone might ask on Facebook if anyone personally knows someone who died of a disease with the hope that this will create the impression that the disease is rare or not that serious (when the disease is not rare and is serious). This does run the risk of getting “yes” responses, which might be countered by accusations of lying or other Ad Hominem attacks. When used in bad faith, this rhetorical device is often upgraded to a fallacy, sometimes with an implied conclusion. As a fallacy, it has the following general form:
Premise 1: Person P asks audience A (which is not an adequate sample), “do you personally know anyone who X?
Premise 2: (Person P assumes) Audience A’s answer is “no.”
Conclusion: Therefore, X is rare, does not occur or is not serious.
This version can also be seen as type of Hasty Generalization or Biased Generalization since the inference is based on an inadequate sample. If a representative sample is used, then this would not be fallacious reasoning.
The fallacy can also be presented as this form, which would occur if you responded to the question:
Premise 1: Person P asks Person A, “do you personally know anyone who X?”
Premise 2: Person A’s answer is “no.”
Conclusion: Therefore, X is rare, does not occur or is not serious.
This is fallacious reasoning because even if a single person does not know anyone who X, it does not follow that X is rare, does not occur or is not serious. This is, of course, just drawing an inference from a lack of anecdotal evidence. To use a silly example, it would be absurd for me to infer that no one has ever won an Oscar because I do not personally know someone who has won one.
When used in bad faith, this fallacy is most effective when the X is statistically uncommon. That is, there is a good chance that an individual would not personally know someone who X. If X is common or the truth about X is well known, then this fallacy will tend to fail. For example, trying to convince people that heart disease is a hoax by asking “do you personally know anyone who has heart disease?” would presumably fail. As such, this fallacy usually requires an X that is not too common and a degree of ignorance (willful or otherwise) in the target audience. While this fallacy lacks logical force, it can have considerable psychological force because people tend to accept their own personal experience (or lack of experiences) over statistical data.
This fallacy can be effective when an occurrence is significant or serious yet is uncommon enough that many people will not personally know someone who has been affected. To use a pleasant example, imagine a lottery in the United States in which everyone gets a ticket, and the odds of winning a million dollars are 1 in 1600. While those might seem to be “bad odds” of winning, there would be about 207,156 winners. This would be a significant event, but you would probably not personally know anyone who won, since most people know about 600 other people. To use horrific example, imagine a terrorist attack on the United States in which 1 in 1600 people are killed. While those might seem to be “good odds” of not dying, there would be about 207,156 people killed. This would be a significant event, but you would probably not personally know anyone who died if you know about 600 people.
Defense: To avoid inflicting this fallacy on yourself or falling for it, the main defense is to keep in mind that the absence of anecdotal evidence for a general claim does not disprove that claim. While statistics and probability are beyond the scope of this work, knowing some of the basics can be a good defense when considering whether not having a personal anecdote or not knowing someone who has experienced something is adequate evidence for a claim.
TV Personality: “Do you personally know anyone who died of Squid Piox? I bet you don’t. It is just another hoax to scare people into handing over more power to Big Brother.”
TV Personality: “Do you personally know anyone who has been the victim of shoplifting? I bet you don’t. It is just another hoax to scare people into handing over more power to Big Brother.”
Ted: “This student loan debt situation seems bad. The President said he would do something about it, but he has done nothing.”
Jen: “So, do you know anybody who is suffering because of student debt?”
Ted: “Well, no.”
Jen: “So how big a deal can it be?”
Ted: “But I went to college forty years ago. What about people who graduated recently?”
Tony: “Wow, we lost a so many people to COVID. And are still losing people.”
Tucker: “That is what the media says, but do you personally know anyone who died of COVID?”
Tony: “Well, my coworker’s brother died of it.”
Tucker: “Did you know them personally?”
Tony: “No. Are you saying that my co-worker lied about her brother’s death?”
Tucker: “I’m just asking questions. We need to focus on the real threat, like Antifa and their violence.”
Tony: “Do you personally know anyone who has been harmed by Antifa?”
Originally appeared on A Philosopher’s Blog Read More