anecdotes and evidence

I really wanted to write a two-sentence Tuesday post and include a couple of sentences of my own. I’m working on quite a few pieces of writing, actually. But they’re all in Very Early Draft Form, which means they’re not quite suitable for human consumption. Soon, maybe, and if and when they are suitable, I’ll post excerpts and solicit feedback accordingly.

In lieu of my own two sentences, I wanted to give two sentences from a recently-published anthology on the topic of Buddhism in North America. This is from Paul David Numrich.

The well-known quip in social scientific circles, “the plural of anecdote is not data,” should caution non-social scientists against generalizing about North American Buddhists based on minimal, unsystematic, or no actual fieldwork. In my mind, insistence on empirical grounding would be the most significant social scientific contribution to an interdisciplinary field of study on this this topic, especially when dealing with questions about Buddhist identity and organizational dynamics.

This is right on. And this is why I increasingly appreciate Arunlikhati’s recent attempts to document the representation of Asians and Asian Americans in the mainstream Buddhist press.

Of the many, many responses his (and mine and others’) posts about race usually elicit, one of my favorite is the one that goes along these lines: “I’ve never experienced racism in a Buddhist setting. You must be wrong.” Apart from the many, many logical and theoretical problems with this argument is the fact that it is purely anecdotal.

As Prof. Numrich rightly reminds us, anecdotal evidence is just that: anecdotal. It is not empirical. Empirical evidence is reality-based. In doing empirical research, even in the social sciences (and we can leave aside for the moment that debate about whether or not social science is “real” science), you start by collecting a mass of data. You then analyze it and look for patters. You create a hypothesis. Then you collect more data to test that hypothesis. If your data no longer supports the hypothesis, you make a new one and collect more data.

One piece of anecdotal evidence may spark a question. It may point us in a direction that needs further research. It may be the point of departure for a larger fieldwork project. But it is not reliable evidence and does not prove anything in particular. Even a string of anecdotes — as Prof. Numrich calls them, a string of minimal and unsystematic anecdotes — is simply not enough reliable evidence from which any conclusions can be made.

To compare to a debate from the “real” sciences: If you heard someone claim, “Boy, it sure is cold in Fargo, North Dakota, today. So much for global warming,” you’d think they were a crazy. You certainly wouldn’t believe that this was a legitimate scientific claim. The case for global warming has been made over the course of decades of scientific research, on the basis of huge data sets from the world over, and, at the end of the day, is still just a theory. But it’s a well-founded theory based on a massive set of empirical evidence. Based on this massive set of empirical evidence, we can say, “Hey, cold weather in Fargo aside, the planet it’s trending warming which would be disastrous for us as a species. Let’s get to work, shall we?”

This is what Arunlikhati is ostensibly doing over at Dharma Folk. We can debate whether or not we really want to call individuals racist; we can hold off on making any larger theories or from drawing any substantive conclusions until there’s more data; we can be critical of his motives or the assumptions that he has going in; but, at the end of the day, what’s really happening is that he’s testing a hypothesis (that Asians and Asian Americans are underrepresented in the mainstream American Buddhist press) by collecting empirical evidence. And, given enough time, regardless of whether the data supports or negates this hypothesis, the data will eventually out-weigh any one person’s anecdotal missive.

So we should all be keeping an eye on the Asian Meter. We should take this project seriously and support the effort. Regardless of where the data takes us, it will provide a richer image of what it means to be an American Buddhist in the fullest sense of that phrase.

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6 thoughts on “anecdotes and evidence

  1. Very thought-provoking post. I would also agree that there has been very little empirical data on North American Buddhism, and what we (think we) know is actually based on a plurality of anecdotes. It would be interesting to see how empirical data could be gathered, given the fluid nature of American Buddhism; I would imagine that it would have to be based on a series of interdisciplinary research, coming from anthropology, social sciences, etc., and not just from Buddhist Studies.

  2. Wow. This post is very kind of you, Scott. I see my fuzzy numbers are more to put my complaints into perspective, rather than add scientific knowledge to the Buddhist community. Along with Yuinen’s note, we must draw on fields that we normally don’t associate with Buddhism. We have to understand American Buddhism in its context. I drew on recent demographic analyses of Asian Americans to attempt to infer conclusions about Asian American Buddhists, but my numbers are mostly simple arithmetic. Is there at least one scholar in the field of Buddhist studies who’s doing this? It would sure save me a lot of time!

  3. @ Yuinen: & @ arunlikhati:

    The book I quote is doing exactly this. In fact, Yuinen, Numrich makes almost the exact same point as you in his introduction. Moreover, sociologists of religion do this sort of thing all the time. In this particular book, Tetsuden Kashima does a lot (and I mean A LOT) of number crunching about, specifically, the Japanese American community.

    The down side? It’s still in hardback with a whopping price tag of just over $100. (Goddamn academic publishing.) So if you can find it in a library, that’s the way to go.

    Perhaps I should take a break from my usual kvetching and silliness and sum up some of those numbers for my readers? A show of hands! Who’d appreciate that?!

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