Category Archives: Daniel Patrick Moynihan

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.

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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)