This purpose of this point is to preserve the true meaning of Raymond Wolfinger’s oft-misquoted aphorism.

Via the Internet Archive’s snapshot of this July 6, 2004 post on

Nelson W. Polsby PS, Vol. 17, No. 4. (Autumn, 1984), pp. 778-781. Pg. 779: Raymond Wolfinger’s brilliant aphorism “the plural of anecdote is data” never inspired a better or more skilled researcher.

I e-mailed Wolfinger last year and got the following response from him:

“I said ‘The plural of anecdote is data’ some time in the 1969-70 academic year while teaching a graduate seminar at Stanford. The occasion was a student’s dismissal of a simple factual statement–by another student or me–as a mere anecdote. The quotation was my rejoinder. Since then I have missed few opportunities to quote myself. The only appearance in print that I can remember is Nelson Polsby’s accurate quotation and attribution in an article in PS: Political Science and Politics in 1993; I believe it was in the first issue of the year.”

I also e-mailed Polsby, who didn’t know of any early printed occurrences.

What is interesting about this saying is that it seems to have morphed into its opposite – “Data is not the plural of anecdote” – in some people’s minds. Mark Mandel used it in this opposite sense in a private e-mail to me, for example.

Fred Shapiro

Hat tip: Revolutionary Analytics and Nate Silver/FiveThirtyEight.

I particularly like Silver’s riff on Wolfinger’s misunderstood quote:

You may have heard the phrase the plural of anecdote is not data. It turns out that this is a misquote. The original aphorism, by the political scientist Ray Wolfinger, was just the opposite: The plural of anecdote is data.

Wolfinger’s formulation makes sense: Data does not have a virgin birth. It comes to us from somewhere. Someone set up a procedure to collect and record it. Sometimes this person is a scientist, but she also could be a journalist.

And, conversely, I have to strongly disagree with RA’s David Smith:

So I’ve been using the quotation wrong all this time! I think I’m going to stick with “The plural of anecdote is not data”, though: the word “anecdote” to me suggests information surrendered, not collected, and it’s the implication of reporting bias that makes the quote so apposite for statisticians.

All data is information surrendered. Everything from the number of footsteps you take with a smartphone in your pocket, what you tell the Census taker, who you’ve chosen to vote for – the fact that you voted at all, to each tweet and Facebook post you create: the text, when you sent it, where you sent it from, and how long since the last time you sent one.

Knowing how data is implicitly and explicitly collected is fundamental to understanding its value and its limitations.