By Dot-Edy Yoo
Epigraph: “The plural of anecdote is data.” --Ray Wolfinger (1931-2015)
Raymond Wolfinger, the late political scientist from Berkeley, apparently said it first. Fred Shapiro, editor of the Yale Dictionary of Quotations, e-mailed Wolfinger in 2003 and got the following response:"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."
Early prototype of character “Data” from Star Trek
Dr. Stephen Devoto, the Middletown vote-getting Renaissance man, is the first to respond when a crazed faculty member cries during a demonstration, “Someone get over here to take care of this reporter for me. I need some fishmuscle.” That’s old news. What’s less known is that he fights for the Lost Cause. No, not the Confederacy. I mean data as a plural noun.
It’s no secret. He does it in public and defends it. At a recent public meeting where he mentioned what the data were, some geezer got up and said, “If you keep using the word data as a plural, I’ll follow you anywhere.”
To put the best possible spin on the use of data as a singular noun, it’s used as a collective singular noun that keeps its plural flavor. You’d no more speak of “one data” than of “one milk” or “one outer space” or “one underwater.”
I had given up on the Lost Cause, and now I feel the fool. (Not like feeling the Bern.) I should have had more faith in Chesterton: “There are no lost causes, for there are no gained causes.”
A parallel struggle goes on in Connecticut law, which distinguishes between dictum and holding in case law opinions. Holding is the rule of the case. Dictum (Latin plural dicta) is short for obiter dictum. Obiter means incidentally, by the way, in passing. Dictum means a thing that has been said.
So in legal use, an obiter dictum (or just dictum) is an incidental and collateral opinion uttered by a judge and therefore not material to the judge’s decision or judgment and not binding in the case or as precedent for future cases.
The commonest situation in which the term comes up is where Able makes a statement, say, “the moon is blue,” and Baker cites language from a case that says the moon is white. “Ah,” Able replies, “But that was mere dicta.” Able wouldn’t dream of saying, “Ah, but that was a mere dictum.” The Lost Cause with a different mask.
Speaking of Wesleyan professors, Dr. Brian Stewart gave his Ninth Annual Environmental Rant three times recently (there were posters). One wag asked how it can be a “rant” if it’s given three times -- doesn’t a rant have to be spontaneous? (No.) Another wondered how the label “rant” could be attached to the gentle, measured, thoughtful remarks of Dr. Stewart.
In a word, things don’t look good. The video showed trouble all over and projected the effect of the proposed measures nations have signed onto (spoiler: not enough to prevent major climate disruption).
In the Q&A after the rant proper, the questioning was oddly timid. A woman who said she worked in an industry that turned waste carbon into construction materials asked what the cost of the necessary technology to halt global warming would be. Dr. Stewart disclaimed sure knowledge of what technology that might be, and wondered whether technology -- whose energy-thirsty nature got us into this fix -- is in principle the way out.
The same questioner asked whether we should admit defeat and bend all efforts to adaptation -- moving the coastal millions elsewhere as the seas rise. Dr. Stewart was agnostic -- the ability of science to illumine policy is powerful but limited.
Another asked whether the rich global north should bear the whole cost of halting “celestialization” of carbon (from underground to sky) or adapting to its effects, since the north reaped most of the benefit of the last two hundred years of carbon celestialization. Answer: science can’t say.
A question not asked was whether the day could be saved if everyone became a vegetarian overnight and every bovine on the planet were slaughtered. Goodbye, methane accelerator effect.
On a different day, one Connecticut state legislator declined to vote for limits on greenhouse gases because “there are a lot of greenhouses in my district.”
Speaking of education, one of my favorite stories involves Phil Gramm, then a Texas senator. He was on a television program with a representative of the education establishment (call her Dr. Hyde). One exchange between them went something like this:
Gramm: My education proposals are premised on the fact that I care more about my children than you do.
Dr. Hyde: No, you don’t.
Gramm: Oh? What are their names?
Let’s end today with fine words from a coffee mug: “Yes, English can be weird. It can be understood, though, through tough, thorough thought.” (Doesn’t hurt if it’s well taught, either.)
Or as my grandmother put it: “‘Let us fly,’ said the flea. ‘Let us flee,’ said the fly. And together they flew through the flue.”