The Power of the Anecdote

Over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, Ed writes about a documentary produced by Fox News that is as dishonest as you would expect from a documentary produced by Fox News:

Fox News has produced a documentary called The Great Food Stamp Binge that focuses a great deal of attention on a California surfer dude who says on camera that he gets food stamps and he doesn’t want a job because he likes his happy-go-lucky lifestyle. And they’re also pushing polling data that shows a majority of Americans think most people on food stamps are taking advantage of the system.

A 57-percent majority believes most food stamp recipients are taking advantage of the system, while just 36 percent think they are truly in need of help…

The Fox News Reporting documentary profiles, among others, a California surfer and aspiring musician named Jason Greenslate. Greenslate shows how he supports his beach-bum lifestyle with food stamps, while dismissing the idea of holding down a regular, steady job.

“It’s not that I don’t want a job, I don’t want a boss. I don’t want someone telling me what to do. I’m gonna live my own life,” Greenslate tells Fox News’ John Roberts. “This is the way I want to live. And I don’t really see anything changing. I got the card. It’s $200. That’s it.”

This is a useful but highly dishonest tactic of using a single anecdote to give viewers the impression that this guy represents all or most food stamp recipients. They even label Greenslate “the new face of food stamps,” but if he is it’s only because they’ve made such an obvious effort to make him into that. And they know very well that what they’re doing works, that most people find anecdotes far more convincing than actual data.

Say what you will about Fox News, they know what works.  While us skeptics and people of a scientific mindset realize that the plural of anecdote is not data, anecdotes are highly effective at forming peoples opinions on issues.  No matter how many times one is presented with the actual statistical evidence, an anecdote isn’t just numbers, it is relate-able , it brings emotion into the discussion, it highlights one of the flaws in the way our brains work.  It takes conscious effort to overcome the power of an anecdote at times.  I know.  One of my co-workers tells me stories of her in laws that make me want to pull my hair out.  Of her sister in law who collects disability even though she could work if she wanted to, who just got pregnant again, this time with the help of fertility drugs paid for with medical assistance.  Or her sister in laws boyfriend, who has 5 other children to 3 different women, none of who are still in his life.   He draws benefits from SSI.  Their food stamps are traded for marijuana each month.   Apparently they were trying to have a child to strengthen their relationship.  They broke up this weekend.

I have no idea how accurate that story is, for all I know it could all be the hate filled fantasy of someone who really doesn’t like her in-laws.  That isn’t the point.  The point is how you feel as you listen to a story like this one.  Even though I know the statistics, even though I am a firm supporter of a much stronger safety net than the one in place in this nation, even though I know that those who are committing assistance fraud are the exception, not the rule, I still look at all the hours I work each week and think how the state cut my medical assistance as soon as I earned over 60$ in a month and how they would laugh at me if I asked for food stamps since I am a single male who has been careful with birth control in my life and get just a little bit pissed.  I have one of the most non-smart cell phones still made, and the most basic pay as I go plan available, and it hurts when I have to get a new card.  If I didn’t know the real story, I know how I would feel watching someone celebrate the free phone Obama just gave them.  Too few people take the time to research the real story.  Anecdotes stick in their minds when statistics fall quickly away.

I wish I had a solution other than education, and just to keep telling people the truth while pointing out dishonest tactics such as this documentary.

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