The horror of anecdotes

Kari Baker was a beautiful mother of two young daughters. And now she’s dead. She was, according to a Texas jury, murdered by her husband, Matt Baker, who allegedly slipped his wife a lethal overdose of ground-up sleeping pills so that he could be with his mistress. An important thing to know about Matt Baker is the he was a white pastor at a Baptist church.

Janet Tillman was also a beautiful mother of two daughters. And now she’s dead as well. She was, according to an Alabama jury, murdered by her husband, Timothy Dane Tillman. Allegedly, Mr. Tillman had recently proposed to his mistress in Mississippi, and he shot Janet in the back, trying to pass it off as a tragic accident. At the time of the killing, Timothy Tillman was a white pastor at an Assembly of God congregation.

Frank Craig was an 85-year-old man who had donated a substantial sum to fund an agricultural museum to be built behind the Hickman Community Church. And now he’s dead. He was, according to a California jury, murdered by the pastor at Hickman, Howard Douglas Porter, who allegedly had been using Mr. Craig’s substantial donations not for a museum but instead to pay for a new house for the murdering Porter, and who killed Craig to make sure the fraud never came to light. The Rev. Howard Porter was not just a pastor—he was a white pastor.

The murderous menace of white pastors?

So far as I know, each of the stories I just told is absolutely true. My accounts are based transparently on the linked media reports, which I have no reason to suspect are erroneous or misleading.

So what are we to make of these stories? Are white pastors especially dangerous monsters? Are their ranks filled with adulterous thieves, blithely murdering the innocent wives and elderly benefactors that get in the way of their sociopathic schemes?

Of course not. Of. Course. Not. Look, I’ve never seen data that’s directly on point, but I’d be willing to bet real money that white pastors are in fact, on the whole, an unusually law-abiding lot.

Yet there are always anecdotes. Give any sizable group of human beings—and particularly any sizeable group of men—enough time and it will produce a number of spectacular horrors. Even among white pastors.

The murderous menace of immigrants?

In his speech tonight, as he did throughout his campaign, apparently Trump will unleash a similar barrage of anecdotes, not about white pastors, but about undocumented immigrants. According to a news report, “President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump will invite three relatives of victims of deadly crimes committed by undocumented immigrants to the president’s joint address before Congress on Tuesday.”

But while I’m just guessing about white pastors being unusually law-abiding folks, we don’t have to guess about immigrants. There are plenty of large-scale studies. Here are a few summaries: (1) “Although there are always individual exceptions, the literature demonstrates that immigrants commit fewer crimes, on average, than native-born Americans.” (2) “Studies find that first-generation immigrants invariably engage in less violent crime than the native born.” (3) “With few exceptions, immigrants are less crime prone than natives or have no effect on crime rates.

Having more immigrants around means there are more humans around (and, indeed, more men), so, yes, there will be murderous anecdotes. It’s true with white pastors; it’s true with immigrants.

You can find anecdotes for pretty much anything. But when people want to draw general conclusions, that’s when we need good research on large samples.