April 14, 2014 / 9:27 PM / 5 years ago

COLUMN-America: The anecdotal nation

(Neal Gabler is the author of “Life: The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

By Neal Gabler

April 14 (Reuters) - In America today, anecdotes have become the new facts.

Consider Obamacare. Opponents have produced ads featuring apparently ordinary Americans telling stories about the travails forced upon them by the Affordable Care Act. One ad, financed by the Koch brothers, highlighted a leukemia sufferer named Julie Boonstra, who claimed that Obamacare had raised the cost of her medications so much that she was faced with death! Pretty dramatic stuff - except that numerous fact-checkers found she would actually save $1,200 under Obamacare.

But what are you going to believe - a sob story or a raft of statistics about the 7.5 million Americans who have signed up and the paltry 1 million folks who had policies canceled?

Or take global warming. Anecdotally speaking, conservatives have insisted that global warming must be a hoax because we have had such cold winters - never mind the scientists who have documented the Earth’s rising temperature. But what are you going to believe - the seasonal chill or the consensus of thousands of climate scientists whose data overwhelmingly support global warming?

Admittedly, anecdotes are an appealing way to dramatize issues. But, as the Boonstra ad and the winter stories demonstrate, there is a problem. However captivating they are, anecdotes often undermine facts - and the truth. Yes, they provide a story, but they seldom provide the whole story. What we get is often misleading, sometimes downright deceptive.

We are especially afflicted in this country. Americans seem to have a greater fondness for anecdotes than citizens of any other nation. Newscasts invariably have human-interest segments; every guest on late-night television must come armed with a funny little story, and no recent State of the Union address is complete without the president pointing up to the gallery and telling the heart-rending stories of his guests there. You could say that we live in Anecdotal America where, as the poet William Carlos Williams said, there are “no ideas but in things.”

Though many anecdotes are harmless, they can be worrisome when it comes to public policy - where anecdotes now abound.

Republicans seem to rely on anecdotes almost in direct proportion to their dismissal of science and fact. But in fairness, anecdotes are one of the few things in America that are truly bipartisan. Democrats use them too, and their anecdotes are no more likely to capture the multiplicity of effects of a policy than the Republicans’.

Both parties understandably want to put a “face” on policy. Yet both Democrats and Republicans operate within the same fallacy - that one small incident can serve as a telling example for a far more complicated and broader issue. This may be good politics. It is bad epistemology.

Though he certainly didn’t invent it, President Ronald Reagan was the virtuoso of fabulism - expert at damning the facts and celebrating the story. He loved to talk about the “welfare queen” who bought a brand-new Cadillac by defrauding the government. That encapsulated - far better than any statistics could - what everyone already knew was wrong with welfare. Even if it bore little relation to the truth. The welfare queen represented each and every welfare recipient - all of whom, many Americans believed, were chiselers. Reagan just gave the belief a story.

Reagan also loved to tell the one about the man who invented a beer-can holder and, as a result, became a millionaire. I have no idea if this man was another figment of the Great Communicator’s imagination, but the man was another stand-in - this one for every American dreamer. At the time when social mobility was declining, Reagan’s anecdote asserted that anyone who wanted to make it could make it.

Reagan virtually governed through these stories. As a Hollywood actor, he understood that movie reality often usurped “real” reality, and it had regularly proved true for him. Reagan used to regale visitors with various tales he alleged to be true, which then turned out to be lifted from the movies.

For example, when Reagan addressed Congressional Medal of Honor winners in 1983, he told them the stirring story of a wounded young gunner whose plane was going down and of the commander who decided to go down with him - so the boy wouldn’t die alone. Though Reagan presented this as a true war story, it wasn’t. It was actually a scene from the movie “A Wing and a Prayer.” Even after his staff warned him not to relate this movie narrative, Reagan kept using the anecdote. He couldn’t help himself.

In presenting movies as reality, Reagan wasn’t being duplicitous - any more than he was being duplicitous when talking about the welfare queen. As a longtime story-teller, he may have so deeply internalized the fictional that it became real to him. (Though a classical actor in Hollywood, he became a Method actor in the White House.)

What is troubling is that many Americans internalize these fictions too - which is why so many politicians wield anecdotes instead of facts. Studies show that most Americans reject facts when they are confronted with them if those facts don’t reinforce their prejudices. Stories are a lot more effective, false or not, simplification or not.

That may be because, just as Reagan was in thrall to the movies, so are most Americans. Movies are so vivid, so emotive, so powerful that they not only make it easy for us to confuse fiction and fact - they make us want to confuse them.

There are still Americans who believe John Wayne won World War Two even though he was acting on a Hollywood soundstage rather than fighting on the battlefield. In Anecdotal America, when anecdotes and facts compete, the anecdotes usually wind up winning. We are beholden to them.

And so there was the new Federal Reserve Board chairwoman, Janet Yellen, during her first public address in that role, telling anecdotes about three people affected by the economic downturn. Her stories were effective and personal - yet another attempt to put a human face on cold economics. It was, in truth, effective. But was it an accurate depiction of working-class America?

These days we just don’t know. To paraphrase the celebrated line from John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”: “When the anecdote becomes fact, print the anecdote.” (Neal Gabler)

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