The Plural of Anecdote is Data

Raymond Wolfinger? Roger G. Noll? Richard F. Fenno Jr.? Daniel Patrick Moynihan? George Stigler? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: An anecdote is a single fact or datum. When many of these facts are combined the collection is naturally called data. Apparently, a social scientist coined the following saying:

The plural of anecdote is data.

Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: The earliest known instance appeared in a 1980 book chapter titled “The Game of Health Care Regulation” by Roger G. Noll. This citation is listed in the valuable reference “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” from Yale University Press. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Most of the evidence is anecdotal. Nevertheless, in the words of a leading political scientist, Raymond Wolfinger, the plural of anecdote is data, and the data seem to be consistent with the theory.

This is an illuminating statement, but it is important to recognize that data used in scientific experiments should be gathered in a systematic manner according to a well-defined protocol. A haphazard group of anecdotes typically do not yield a good data set. Hence, the negation of the expression above is an adage to some researchers:

The plural of anecdote is not data.

This adage is explored by QI in a separate article here. Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1981 a symposium about the U.S. Congress included an article titled “What’s He Like? What’s She Like? What Are They Like?” by Richard F. Fenno Jr. which included the saying: 2

As Raymond Wolfinger has wisely observed, “The plural of anecdote is data.” We might have better data if we collected it ourselves.

In 1984 the “Duke Law Journal” published a piece by legal scholar Ronald A. Cass who credited Roger Noll: 3

Unfortunately, it is difficult to gather much supporting evidence that rises above the anecdotal. (Not long ago, Roger Noll observed before a group of administrative lawyers that in the social sciences the plural of “anecdote” is “data.”)

In 1986 Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan penned a piece for the “Chicago Sun-Times” which included the saying with an anonymous attribution: 4

Data is said to be the plural of anecdote.

In 1990 Professor of Finance and Economics Gregg Jarrel credited fellow economist George Stigler: 5

Comment by Gregg Jarrel: As George Stigler told me at the University of Chicago, “The plural of anecdote is data.” This paper is an excellent illustration of that statement.

In 2010 quotation expert Fred R. Shapiro wrote about the quotation on a blog called “Quotes Uncovered” that was part of the “Freakonomics” web presence. The earliest citation he found pointed to Wolfinger whom he then contacted via email. Wolfinger sent this response: 6

I said ‘The plural of anecdote is data’ some time in the 1969-70 academic year while teaching a graduate seminar at Stanford. The occasion was a student’s dismissal of a simple factual statement — by another student or me — as a mere anecdote. The quotation was my rejoinder.

In conclusion, Raymond Wolfinger is the leading candidate for crafter of this expression. Other attributions occurred years after the linkage to Wolfinger.

Image Notes: Sphere in hand representing data from TheDigitalArtist at Pixabay. Story introduction written on paper from Ramdlon at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Jeff Braemer whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Additional thanks to szescstopni, Joel S. Freund, Barry Ritholtz, and Carl V. Phillips who asked about the negation of the adage. Special thanks to Fred R. Shapiro, Charles Clay Doyle, and Wolfgang Mieder for their pioneering research. Also, thanks to discussants Barry Popik, Sam Clements, John Baker, Aaron Dinkin, and Mark A. Mandel.)

Notes:

  1. 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Quote Page 202, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified in Dictionary of Modern Proverbs) (Citation for adage – not yet verified by QI: 1980 Roger G. Noll, “The Game of Health Care Regulation,” in Issues in Health Care Regulation, edited by Richard S. Gordon (New York: McGraw-Hill) 136; text is visible in a snippet from the Google Books database)
  2. 1983, (Conference held in January 1981), The United States Congress: Thomas P. O’Neill, Jr., Symposium on the U.S. Congress, Editor Dennis Hale, Article: “What’s He Like? What’s She Like? What Are They Like?” by Richard F. Fenno Jr., Start Page 107, Quote Page 112, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, New Jersey. (Reprint: Originally published: Chestnut Hill, MA: Boston College, Copyright 1982) (Verified with hardcopy)
  3. 1984 April, Duke Law Journal, Volume 1984, Number 2, Fifteenth Annual Administrative Law Issue, “Review: Black Robes and Blacker Boxes: The Changing Focus of Administrative Law” by Ronald A. Cass, Quote Page 428, Duke University School of Law. (JSTOR)
  4. 1986 August 24, Chicago Sun-Times, Article: Diary of a tax reformer – Senator Moynihan tells how it happened – but almost didn’t, Author: Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Section: Editorial, Quote Page 51, Chicago, Illinois. (NewsBank Access World News)
  5. 1990, Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Edited by Martin Neil Baily and Clifford Winston, Microeconomics 1990, Quote Page 73, Brookings Institution, Washington D.C. (Google Books Preview)
  6. Website: Freakonomics, Article title: Quotes Uncovered: What’s the Plural of Anecdote?, Article author: Fred Shapiro, Date on website: April 29, 2010, Website description: Website of economic thought created by Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt. (Accessed freakonomics.com on December 24, 2017) link