There’s a lot of chaos in the media today about the shameful policy that requires the separation of immigrant parents and children in detention centers. And while I do have very strong opinions on that issue (hint: I’m against it) that’s not what I want to talk about in this blog, so I’m going to focus on another aspect of the debate that undercuts deliberative dialogue: a focus on anecdotes instead of data.
The immigration debate is perhaps the most prominent modern example of this trend. For political reasons, the current administration wants to make the connection that immigrants are criminals (of course, making immigration a crime by definition makes all immigrants criminals, even though immigration has happened since time immemorial, but I digress). The President began his campaign by saying many immigrants are rapists. He has continually elided immigrants (about 1m per year) and gang members, particularly MS-13 (estimated to have 8-10k members in the US). The Administration even puts out a weekly list of crimes committed by immigrants to underscore this message. Hence the use of the term “infest.”
But this connection is not backed up by data. Two large studies, one by the Libertarian Cato Institute and another in the journal Criminology, concluded the exact opposite of the administration’s assertions. The Cato study concludes “As a percentage of their respective populations, there were 56 percent fewer criminal convictions of illegal immigrants than of native-born Americans in Texas in 2015… The criminal conviction rate for legal immigrants was about 85 percent below the native-born rate.” (See the chart at the top of this post for a summary of their results.) The Criminology study found that states with more undocumented immigrants had lower crime rates than states with smaller immigrant populations: “Increases in the undocumented immigrant population within states are associated with significant decreases in the prevalence of violence,” the authors found. In fact, they conclude that the arrival of immigrants was a major factor behind the drop in crime rates in the US over the last 20 years.
So one way to maintain the position of the administration is to cloud the reality described by the data through a focus on individual stories. Many websites chronicle the tragedies of crimes committed by immigrants, and the stories shared are truly heartbreaking. But lists of crimes perpetrated by U.S. citizens would be similarly heartbreaking. And by putting all these stories in one place, and removing them from a broader context, the reader is left to reach their own conclusion: all these crimes by immigrants are proof of a trend, and we have to take action to protect ourselves.
It goes back to what I was discussing in an earlier post around “trusting your gut.” If you don’t like immigrants for some reason (we’ll leave the specific reasons to the side for now — but race, cultural differences, and language are three likely factors) you may be inclined to believe stories that reinforce that dislike. If someone describes several horrible crimes committed by immigrants, you may connect the dots and presume these stories represent a trend. Most people don’t put the time into learning the actual data before jumping to a conclusion, particularly if that conclusion is in line with their “gut instinct” (which introduces the previously described shortcomings).
But the focus on anecdotes over data is not isolated only to the immigration debate. Consider the opponents to the Affordable Care Act looking for stories of individuals adversely effected by the law, when in fact the data shows a huge positive trend across the general population. And this focus on stories over data is not only a conservative phenomenon. Some progressives have touted anti-vaccine conspiracy theories backed by anecdotal stories of individual children, while the data show conclusively that vaccines are safe.
This tactic works because each side can easily cite stories to bolster their argument, and the egregious details capture the imagination. The human brain is tuned to understand an individual story much more easily than to process reams of abstract facts and figures. In addition, skepticism has set in for most of the electorate as well about studies, namely that whoever sponsors the study will find a way to twist the results to bolster their perspective — so citizens learn over time to tune out anything with charts and data sets. There is also a sense that those who focus on data over individual stories are hard at heart, or cold and unfeeling. “How can you look at this murder victim and not be moved? Put your charts away.”
It’s fine to tell stories. In fact, telling stories instead of citing figures was part of what made Presidents Reagan and Clinton so effective as leaders. But decision makers need to make decisions on the basis of verified, unbiased data — not anecdotes. We need to protect policymaking from the political gamesmanship, and calling out the misleading use of anecdotes is part of that effort.