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Anecdotes and Data

May 1, 2021 7:48:57 AM / by Tim McCarthy

A popular topic has become very personal for me. The topic is disinformation and misinformation.

How did information become so malleable?

Some say a villain lurks. Far more likely to me is that our culture simply must adjust to the increase in velocity of data. We are experiencing the reaction of human nature to the laws of supply and demand.

Multicolored abstract of many business cards on a bulletin board, with considerable shape blur, for implied themes of information overload and confusion (one of a series)

Technology now provides a supply of communication space that far exceeds our collective ability to assimilate content. And, as in any high growth business I’ve experienced, early gaps are filled by those who can most quickly monetize the absence of norms and reason. Reliable sources are harder to find.

Simply stated, fear, outrage and exceptions attract more eyeballs than science and confirmed data.

In a shortened news cycle, anecdotes and selective data are easily mistaken for facts and confirmed data. Covid-19 vaccine coverage in the current news cycle demonstrates my point.

  • An Oregon woman is dead and five other people have blood clot complications from receiving the Johnson and Johnson Covid-19 vaccine.
  • Broader data on all vaccines in the USA shows that over 6,000 people have contracted the virus after being fully immunized.

The first bullet is anecdotal, interesting stories about real people and incidents. I read these stories closely since blood clotting caught my attention as all health concerns do at my age.

The second bulleted news item is more data driven. I noticed it because I’m fully vaccinated.

On further digging, however, I learned that the 6 blood clotting cases being studied are among 6.7 million J&J doses administered in the USA to date. And the 6,000 people who’ve contracted the virus after vaccination are among 84,000,000 fully immunized Americans. (.0007%)

There lies the conclusion I’ve come to regarding information versus anecdotes and selected data: it is now MY personal responsibility to look further into anecdotes and data presented as information.

I recently heard a journalist say, “when I was a kid reporter, my boss taught me that our job is to make important news interesting, not interesting news important”.

Interesting stories are fine. What would our world be without them? But it is our personal responsibility to discern the interesting from the important. Like airplane crashes, tragic stories of blood clots and failed immunization attracts my interest and empathy but does not drive my behavior.

Commercial exploitation of information is not new. As a career marketing guy, I was trained to distinguish between legitimate, sourced information and “n=1” and “mother-in-law” research.

Access to such a high velocity of information requires personal adjustments. We must choose individually whether to accept interesting as important or we can choose to dig deeper to become more thoughtful and informed.



Tim McCarthy

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Tim McCarthy

Written by Tim McCarthy

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