You Are Not A Statistically Relevant Sample

Is there a politer way to tell someone ‘you are not a statistically relevant sample’? Because I used those words in an argument a while ago and caused some offense.

It was true, though. I offered some statistics on institutionalized sexual discrimination (I actually memorized numbers, and you guys know how hard remembering is for me) and the person I was talking to asserted that there is no such thing because she, personally, knew two women who were high up in management in very successful companies.

I hate, hate, hate when someone responds to ‘societal trend’ or ‘statistical information’ with ‘personal anecdote’. I believe that you know women who are successful. I will even believe that all your female friends are super successful and happy with their career choices. Sure.

BUT YOU ARE NOT A STATISTICALLY RELEVANT SAMPLE.

“But I know women who are successful.”

“But I would never rape anyone.”

“But I don’t have any problem with trans/gay/non-white people.”

“But I totally knew a guy who was accused of rape and it turned out she made it up.”

I believe you. I do, I swear.

YOU ARE NOT A STATISTICALLY RELEVANT SAMPLE.

No matter what your gender, sex, sexual orientation, age, race, nationality, height, whatever. Your personal opinion does not trump everyone else’s experiences because statistics. And because logic. I’m not saying it’s not relevant to anything ever, but when one is trying to discuss institutionalized racism in one’s country’s history personal opinions are not evidence.

Racism, sexism, any old ism you can think of, there are people who will trot out a single anecdotal example to the contrary and think that that’s a counter-argument. And it isn’t. It really, really isn’t. Your opinion does not counter the thousands of incidents of racially or sexually motivated violence reported every year, or the prejudice people other than you experience every day. A single anecdote, however moving, does not counter them either. I don’t care if you were mugged by a gang of rabid feminists who made you kneel to the matriarchy, laughed at your penis size and then stole your wallet. Well, I do care on a personal level, because obviously that would be scary, and I sympathize, I do. But unless there are over 84,000 reported cases of Feminist Muggings every year, and when you tried to report it you were asked if you’d been drinking and what you were wearing and told you must have asked for it, and your partner blamed you for giving other women your money instead of bringing it home to her because you must have wanted it, then it does not mean jack shit in an argument about rape statistics because one incident is not a trend and it does not mean that sexism is over.

On a personal level, yes, you have my deepest sympathy.

But you are still not a statistically relevant sample, and you cannot extrapolate a social trend from a single incident. A personal anecdote, no matter how personally traumatic, is not an argument against an institutionalized social thingie. (Watching Finding Nemo does not make remembering appropriate language easier, so you know).

I haven’t been able to come up with a more polite way to say ‘yes, but your personal opinion doesn’t actually outweigh facts’, so arguments with certain members of my family and circle of friends will continue to be fraught with difficulty.  However, this phrase has worked quite well for me in derailing the ‘yes, but personal anecdote’ line of argument. Just look the nay-sayer firmly in the eye, or the text, and say as nicely as possible ‘yes, but you are not a statistically relevant sample.’

Anyone who is made angry by your failure to accept that their personal opinion and anecdotes are equally relevant to the argument as the entirety of a United Nations statistical report compiled from multiple government sources is a person who has not done their research and is therefore a suspect source of information. Assuming that you have done your research and are not likewise talking out of your butt, unless they have a really killer argument for how their personal experience illustrates a larger trend (and I’m not saying that the ‘established facts’ are always flawless, for the record), the odds that they’re right and you’re wrong are pretty low.

The odds of me getting my butt flamed off for this, by the way, seem pretty high. I’ll concede that I’m only going from my personal experience here, but observation tells me that when a woman announces ‘your opinion is invalid’, her chances of being flamed by men is very high. Let’s see if the facts bear out my personal experiences!