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IMO: The Humble Anecdote

by Mike Weaver

July 9, 2013

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In this installment of In My Opinion(IMO), I’d like to celebrate our old friend, the much maligned anecdote. I am fond of the anecdote, a worthy companion, and a guide in the darkness. There’s a reason, I think, that we find anecdotes so persuasive. A good friend of mine said that you should read on.

What is an anecdote? Simply put, it is an short tale or story related one to another, often verbally, regarding some experience or observation. Anecdotes are presented as, and are presumed to be, true or, at least, based upon real events. This is a key point, in fact. In essence, an anecdote is the social sharing of information between humans in a manner easy to consume and understand (as a narrative or tale). Often they are amusing, but they need not be. One common feature is the sharing of, presumably, useful information.

One might hear an anecdote about how Jimmy ate a green persimmon and had a very unpleasant mouth dryness as a result. We can learn from this that, perhaps, eating a green persimmon is a bad idea. This information was delivered anecdotally. It informs us in a way that’s easy to understand and relate to. This improves the chances of learning useful knowledge and improves the community as a whole.

There are advantages to life as a human in learning via anecdote. Much of our ‘common sense’ knowledge and cultural flavor are learned via anecdotes. We share them freely, nearly compulsively. When a question comes up regarding something with which we have experience, many feel compelled to share their experiences with others. If Sam is considering buying a Honda, and Gail had one which broke down all the time, she’s likely to share that experience with Sam. Sam’s opinion will likely be influenced by this information.

In the skeptical community, the anecdote has a very tarnished reputation. Arguments are dismissed, seemingly out of hand, with the cry of “That’s an anecdote!” or “Anecdotal Evidence!”. The problem with anecdotes is veracity. Human nature is to accept an anecdote at face value, it is advantageous in many cases. There is even more pressure to do so when the anecdote comes from a friend or family member. It can even be considered rude to ask for confirming evidence when a friend relates his anecdote about something.

As skeptics, we should be wary of anecdotes, for they are the weakest form of evidence. Human experience is subjective, memories are ever changing and often surprisingly inaccurate, tales are often changed to suit the audience, even embellished with fabricated details to make the story more compelling (often without the knowledge or intent of the person telling it). Anecdotes are a very poor sort of proof and do not conclusively settle any scientific question. I could make the case that the anecdote, and all of its related issues, are likely one of the major driving forces behind the development of the scientific method.

Why, then, am I fond of them? Why should we celebrate them? Anecdotes inform us, they guide us, they are a light in the darkness. They are not sufficient, and are no replacement for rigorous scientific inquiry, but they do help. Consider a friend, Jane, searching for her dog. She asks around, listens to others, about whether or not they have seen a dog. She uses the information gained this way, anecdotal in many cases, to inform her search for the dog. It’s more likely to be a successful search if she focuses on areas with high numbers of sightings. She would also be well advised to do a bit of basic reasoning on the anecdotes. While there may be many dog sightings two counties away, it’s not very likely that her dog is there.

Anecdotes can show us where there might be something worth investigating. When there is a lot of anecdotal evidence for something, I argue that it is likely worth a look. Once informed by the anecdotal evidence, however, we should move on to more concrete, rigorous testing and evidence. If we get a lot of UFO sightings (anecdotes) in an area, it does make sense to investigate further. The anecdotes are not evidence of UFOs, per se, but they are signposts which tell us where to look more deeply.

Use anecdotes in your investigations, they are weak evidence, but they are evidence. They can lead you to more interesting evidence, more illuminating research, or, often, nothing at all. Certainly the path of the anecdote often ends either with no new evidence found, or nothing found at all, I have discovered that the journey is worth the effort. At the very least, you may end up with some good stories of your own to share!

Be well.


by Mike Weaver

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