the plural of anecdotes is not data

In yesterday’s micro-email RM asked me about the number of people with drinking problems… [and if you’re not signed up to get the micro-emails, you can do that here].

Today i got a reply from Tim that said, “from somewhere I stole a default put down for those who seek to extrapolate small samples into a general picture … ‘the plural of anecdotes is not data’. Emphatically not directed at you…”

and it’s true. I get asked all the time to quantify things. to put numbers to ideas and feelings.  So i usually give a gut-based answer, drawing on instinct or a well-educated guess, and experience from reading emails from whacks of people.

But when i give a number, it’s not really ‘data’, it’s a guesstimate.  Like, how many emails do i get per day (50-100 – when really i never count them, i just know that i answer what comes in and i enjoy every single message – it’s like christmas morning every day in my inbox).

How many people have signed up to do the challenge since last year (700+). How successful is the challenge, as in what percent get and stay sober? (my guesstimate is about 25-50% with another 25% really actively trying, who have new day 1s but who have not given up; that leaves 25% who sign up and then disappear forever or for extended periods of time – someone emailed me 2 weeks ago who had first contacted me a year ago. she’s sober now. what category do i put her in? 25% disappeared? or 50% successfully sober?).

How many times do people relapse (anywhere from never to as many times as it takes).

How much is too much to say you have a real problem that you need to get serious about (Is 1 bottle of wine a night too much or is 3 bottles a wine a night too much).

When should you decide that what you’re doing isn’t enough and you need more support? (are you repeatedly relapsing? then you need more support! you can’t just quit harder, try harder; instead you may need to consider what more support would look like for you).

The answers to most of these questions might be “I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. Are you drinking more than you want to? Yes? Then that’s the answer to the question.”

Do you think that alcoholism is a disease or a bad habit?  my reply: Are you drinking more than you want to? Yes? Then that’s all you need to consider. It’s too much for you. Doesn’t matter about definitions or percentages or probabilities. 

The questions continue with: how many people do i think have a problem with drinking in the general population (more than you realize). How long should i feel this bad? (usually it’s better by 30 days). Shouldn’t i be losing weight in the first month (so terribly sorry, but not likely). Can people moderate after some time spent sober? (in my experience – and this is NOT data – i have found that very very occasionally some people do work at ‘controlling’ their drinking after a period of sobriety. but they don’t spring back to being normies. and for me, i’ve just found that being 100% sober is easier and less tiring and more successful for me 🙂 is that data? no. does it resonate with you? good. if not, you have my permission to stop reading now :))

Do i sometimes feel like this sober penpal thing doesn’t ‘really’ help, it just looks like help. Yes i do feel that sometimes. But anecdotally i know it works – well something is working for some people. some combination of the posts, the emails, being a sober penpal, the podcasts, the optimism and the get-real-ness.

And i get emails like this one every single day, hundreds of times a month. And maybe, for now, Lindsay30 is all the DATA I need.

Lindsay30 (day 1): “Finding this blog may be the best thing that has happened to me in a long long time. I woke up this morning hangover and feeling like total crap. I feel so much guilt. I feel so powerless. I feel shame. Like so many other mornings I woke up thinking “this is not who I am. How did I get here”? I stumbled across your post about the 100 day challenge and found myself needing to read more and more. After 2 hours of reading I took the plunge and signed up for the 100 day challenge. Suddenly I feel optimistic. I realize that I am NOT alone nor am I the only person who is going through this. What a wonderful support system you have created for so many people who need this. Thank you thank you!”