Killer Sustainability anecdotes (and not in a good way)
Last week I retweeted a gif showing a well designed cycle crossing being used by a steady stream of ordinary people on bikes – the text of the tweet pointed out that better infrastructure meant more cycling. Somebody replied with a photo of one woman cycling on the pavement beside a cycle lane (she was cycling slightly away from the lane, so may have been heading for a cycle rack or a shortcut, who knows). I thought of half a dozen ripostes, none of them very witty, before deciding to ignore it.
Setting aside what urges would inspire someone to take time out of their day to dig out a picture to try to criticise cycle infrastructure, this illustrates the trap of anecdotal evidence. Apart from a highly-numerate few, we are naturally inclined towards stories and away from robust statistical analysis. So when somebody says “Huh, climate change is nothing new, the Romans used to grow grapes in York.” the general public are more likely to file that factoid away than complex graphs of global temperature reconstructions. In the same way one out-of-context, statistically insignificant photo undermines my point regarding infrastructure.
Countering beside-the-point anecdotes is difficult; throwing the question back to the storyteller (“What is that meant to show?”) is usually better than trying to argue or fight story with stats.
The flip side is in your own communications you should balance statistics and facts with stories – those anecdotes are what people will remember and relate to.