Skepticism

I see your anecdote and I raise you a story

When debating with believers, I often encounter resistance to the idea that anecdotes are of little or no value as evidence of the efficacy or existence of something. From homeopathy to ghost sightings, the word of Uncle Bob or My-Friend-Marie-Who-Is-Not-Stupid is far superior in the mindsets of most than a peer-reviewed study or a meta-analysis.

That’s perfectly understandable of course, for myriad reasons. For one, most people are not educated in the scientific method and so have simply never been taught the difference and values of types of evidence. Another reason is that we’re hardwired to listen to our peer groups and accept word-of-mouth endorsements or warnings: “don’t eat the red berries, they make you die”. A third and more sinister reason, particularly when it comes to medicine, is that science is often painted as ‘unnatural’ and the alternative therefore better (and by extension, more effective. If illness comes directly from nature then so should the cure). Yes, it’s a nonsense argument, but an all-too-common one.

So what should we do when a supposedly educated person posits a single anecdote as evidence for the effectiveness of alternative therapy in treating cancer? This is an exchange that happened last weekend as my husband and I were debating alternative medicine with a ‘true-believer’ PhD student:

Believer: “My friend had cancer and rejected chemotherapy and drugs in favour of a special diet. He killed the cancer and is just fine now.”

Tkingdoll: “Cancer is more complex than that story allows. For example, it can go into remission by itself. You have no way of knowing if your friend’s cancer went away because of the special diet or if it would have gone away anyway. Studies show that…”

My husband (interrupting) “My friend also rejected medical treatment in favour of the special diet. She died. Painfully”

At that point I shut up because I realised that my husband had, in this particular scenario, the far superior debating tactic. His story (a true one, I hasten to add) is extremely powerful because it warns the believer that the alternative therapy can be lethal too, where previously he may only have been exposed to his friend’s ‘miraculous’ recovery.

It seems to me that if someone can be swayed by an anecdote supporting a position, then another anecdote for the opposite position should at least give them pause. We already know that person responds well to personal testimonials, so why not speak a language they know and like? The next time you’re in a debate with a believer, particularly over something as important as life or death, try changing tactics. Instead of countering their anecdotes with your references to empirical evidence, simply throw down a story of your own.

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34 Comments

  1. Above and beyond anecdotal arguments, I offer you this question. How is it that an atheist must believe that everything in the universe originated out of something except for the universe itself? Personally, I fully believe in the theory of evolution. Scientifically it makes no sense that the universe originated out of nothing.

    I do understand that there are far larger implications to what I wrote, such as there needing to have been an origin to the origin in which I believe, but there are an infinite number of questions, and don't even get me started on the scientific problem of infinity in terms of quantification etc. Suffice to say that the invention of "real" numbers is based of faith, but that is another question for another day.

    Please also let me say that while I personally find abject rejection of a higher being irrational, I do not wish to engage in insults because from reading your blog, it is obvious that you are quite intelligent and I respect your thoughts. I just do not agree with many of them.

  2. I wonder if it's simply a matter of presenting the science in a different light. This would be difficult to do, but what if instead of "studies show," we were to say, "I read a report on 203 people who changed their diets and didn't get better, and in some cases got much worse." A scientific study, when described in slightly different terms, can be much more compelling to the average person. They'll be better able to see that it's like an anecdote times a million. A billion even. Or in this hypothetical case, times 203.

  3. cwiii68, I feel compelled to point out that this blog is written by several people. So unless you're singling out my posts specifically as being "quite intelligent", then I am grudgingly going to have to share the compliment with my skepchick bloggy colleagues, like that Rebecca whose post I mercilessly pushed down the page.

    Rebecca, you may well be right, and I'm doing a bit of writing in that area at the moment (on the back of something I wrote a year or so ago). Your input would be very useful actually, I'll let you know when I have something concrete. Meanwhile, here's an article that is saying something I completely agree with: http://scienceblogs.com/framing-science/2007/04/a

    I think one of the powers of anecdote, however, is the 'personal touch' – it's our trusted peer group or our family or whoever. Or even if it's the neighbour's aunt's sister's friend's husband, that's still a connection of sorts. How do we get past that?

  4. tkingdoll, as you pointed out in your comment, this is related to the big framing discussion that is taking place right now on so many blogs.

    The real crux of the issue, and I'm not sure it's been touched on in the articles I've read, is that in communication we must touch the HEARTS and the MINDS of the people we're communicating to in order to make a difference. We have to TELL STORIES as well as PRESENT DATA. We have to make the issues PERSONAL as well as UNIVERSAL. So it's not an either-or issue.

    And we do need soundbites, short pithy phrases with no jargon that people can remember and tell to their friends.

    Rebecca, anecdotes that are supported by the actual facts and evidence are excellent discussion tools. The anecdote is useful in casual discussion, as in your example in this post. But because the anecdote is backed on real evidence, the discussion can go deeper.

    cwiii68, I've got to admit that I really don't understand your question, particularly how it relates to this topic.

  5. It really doesn't relate to this topic, I just wanted to pick a fight because I am bored.

    However, the question is simple: How is it that everything in the universe originated out of something except the universe itself? Even the observations of the expansion of the universe suggest a point of origination. I mean you originated from the combination of your mother and fathers respective genetic material. Eggs come from chickens; gravel comes from bigger rocks; bigger rocks come from magma; etc, etc, etc.

    Within the atheist lie of "logic" the universe originated out of nothing.

  6. I saw an article a while back that was along this vein. They were talking about how precautionary signs worked better when phrased "anecdotally" instead of just generally. As an example, they said that there was a study done about the signs in some redwood forest that warned tourists not to litter. One set of signs said something like "Please do not litter, park regulations prohibit littering" and another set said something like "Previous littering has damaged this forest and endangered wildlife, please do not litter". The anecdotal signs consistently kept incidences of littering lower than the non-anecdotal ones.

  7. cwiii68,

    Instead of picking fights out of boredom, why not read up on the science of cosmology? There are many great books out there, proposing alternate views for how 'something' could arise out of nothing. Even the 'popular' science works of Hawking, Penrose, and many others can provide you with some clarification.

    I have no idea what your current understanding of their concepts are, and I certainly won't continue to make suggestions if you are truly here to be argumentative just for the sake of being argumentative. However, it seems by your vast oversimplification of the details that you aren't more than passingly familiar with the theoretical and practical science behind the topic, and it would benefit your position greatly to be more well-versed in these areas.

  8. Expatria,

    Are you referring to Vacuum Fluctuation, Chaotic Inflationary Model, etc? If so, I have a little more than a "passingly familiar" acquaintance with them and also Hawking et al. It is that there is still no real consensus as to the explanation of the problem of origin.

    I find however that the simplest questions are usually the hardest to answer and most times the most profound because of their simplicity. Hiding behind mathematical propositions that have yet to be proven ignores the simplicity of the fact that everything originates out of something. Scientific based objections to God always refer to the fact that there is no empirical test for God, and therefore no way to prove existence. I am simply using a verifiable set of tests that can be proven, and then asking that if everything in the natural world originates from something (and it does), then it is illogical to believe that the universe is the only exception to that rule.

  9. The question isn't really about the universe being an exception to the rule, but can the rules of inside the universe apply to the universe itself? Cause and effect works inside the universe, but does it work outside? What is outside the universe? Does the universe need a cause, as we understand it, to be created?

    One may describe the insides of a marshmallow without coming close to describing the fire that will toast it…

  10. cwii68

    When it comes to cosmology, those few people deeply involved may be pursuing one or other model, but I'd suggest the majority of scientifically literate people don't place much confidence in any speculative model, and hardly any scientifically literate people would wholeheartedly believe in a particular model, or be particularly upset if a better model came along.

    In science, confidence does tend to correlate with actual evidence, and no-one should be afraid to say "Not sure" or "I really have no idea", when supporting evidence is not strong.

    Personally, though at the moment I accept the idea that there was probably some kind of Big Bang, I have no real idea about what preceded it.

    To the extent that there is a current-best-theory, that will be as a result of it best fitting observable evidence. To the extent that half a dozen scientific theories all fit the current observable evidence, there's nothing to choose between them apart from possibly simplicity or elegance, and I find no shame in saying "I don't know".

  11. Getting back to the point, I guess the problem with saying "A scientific study showed…" is that if someone's already too much into a certain mindset, they could have all kinds of ways of rationalising away a *scientific* study.

    I think an anecdote could certainly be effective as one prong of a response to anecdotes.

    I wonder how much of the power of anecdotes *is* down to the personal connection, rather than it being the story of a specific human. If you say "My friend tried that, and he died", someone may feel it's harder to dismiss without giving offence than if you said "A dozen scientists I've never met have studied it". They can't really say "I bet he didn't", or "I reckon there's more to it than that"

    I wonder how much difference there might be between saying "Scientific research has shown…" and "My [own/wife's/cousin's] scientific research has shown…". If you don't seem personally hostile, it might be harder for someone to dismiss the research as terribly biased.

    Even if they don't actually ask you for more details, if they felt you had personal access to more information they might be a little more inclined to believe you.

  12. I personally don't know anyone who have died or suffered after opting out of medicine and going for woo, so I can't really use this method of argument. Also it's useless against most woo. "Well I have a friend who's never seen a ghost." Not a good argument. "Well I have a friend who got bad advice from a psychic." Easily 'refutable' with dozens of evasion tactics. And I think this last argument goes for medical woo as well, a single bad-result anecdote might shut a believer up for a while, but I don't think it'll change their minds in the long run. Teaching people about the flaws in reasoning from anecdotes might not be littered with success stories either, but I think it will have a more significant impact on the few it actually touches.

  13. cwii68

    Well, if you're more familiar with those theories than I thought, that's great! I just don't really understand your seeming wholesale rejection of their concepts. Again, there seems to be (as PH says) nothing wrong with saying 'I don't know' for now. We may never REALLY know. As one species on one world in a tiny little corner of a massive universe, it is not inconceivable, to me, that some things could be inconceivable to us as a whole.

    In terms of the ultimate origins of the universe, since we are fundamentally trapped WITHIN our universe, we may never fully understand whether or not there is anything outside of our universe that could potentially have given rise to it, be it a rip in another universe of the hypothetical 'multiverse' or anything else. The Big Bang theory seems to make a lot of sense given the evidence we have, and I've got no qualms provisionally accepting that. Similarly, I have no qualms with the concept (often used by Hawking and much simplified and potentially distorted here by me) that time only exists as a product of the Big Bang and that ideas of 'before' the Big Bang are fundamentally flawed as they suggest that time existed without space.

    To the best of my knowledge, as limited as it is, looking for anything more than that might well be beyond our ken. But if, as suggested, time itself began at the Big Bang, then it isn't a stretch to imagine that, limited as we are by the four dimensions we're mostly capable of understanding, we might not be capable of looking outside of time. The very question of causation and origin might also be flawed, since all that we know and are currently capable of knowing is WITHIN the universe. We are temporally and spatially limited beings, and though we may hope for evidence of something outside of our temporal and spatial limits, we also have to accept that it may never come.

    The difference is that, despite you protestations, you've not made a 'test' for the existence of any gods. Simply put, utilizing religion to fill in gaps in knowledge is a logically flawed proposition. As technology improves and we draw ever closer to the possible limits of our abilities to observe and understand, I feel that it is increasingly likely that this 'god of the gaps' argument will grow in popularity. But neither its convenience nor its popularity are any substitute for legitimate logic and science.

    If, as I've suggested, we cannot TRULY know the origins of the universe, it does not logically follow that a god created it. It simply logically follows that we are limited by our tiny scale and our provincial thinking in the universe. If you are more satisfied with the answers provided by superstition and religion, rather than the uncertainty of our limited knowledge, that's fine. Just don't expect much support for that in quarters where people are willing to accept that human logic is ultimately as limited as human perception, and that a naturalistic explanation for the universe likely exists, even if we don't yet and might not ever have the means to comprehend it.

  14. Oh, and Cwii, you write "How is it that an atheist must believe that everything in the universe originated out of something except for the universe itself?"

    This question makes an unwarranted assumption. Atheists don't have to believe that everything in the universe originated out of something except the universe itself. I personally don't have any idea what was before the bing bang, it might very well be 'something'. I find my understanding of the universe works fairly well without knowing what happened before it started.

    You seem to be implying that since there is a hole there it's logical to put a god in as explanation. Well guess what, I think that's illogical. As a theory of the origin of the universe, god-did-it offers absolutely nothing, except another level of ignorance. With god-did-it in effect I still don't know how the universe came into existence in any useful sense and I have the added conundrum of wondering how god came into existence.

  15. Interesting post, thanks. Story last w/e, on similar issues, may be of interest? http://www.badscience.net/?p=404

    Telling stories is important. I guess it's worth noting that woo medicine is already v good at telling stories about trials – the conclusions of this trial might say that our magic pills don't work…but evil drug companies would say that, wouldn't they…but look, they did find some (non-significant) trends and therefore, despite themselves, they did prove that our woo works… I'd argue that this is compounded by non-open-access journals – many or most people criticising trials from an anti-conventional-medicine perspective don't seem to have read them.

    Maybe interpreting trials as stories could be a useful approach – it's great your cold felt better after you took echinacea…thousands of people took echinacea or sugar pills in a trial, and those who took the sugar pills felt better as quickly as those who took the echinacea.

    Maybe stories with analogies too? In terms of ear candling, say, I've done fire juggling, using candles for lighting and to light the clubs. Candles always splutter occasionally, with bits of hot wax, sparks etc. coming off them (I did try to find ones that burnt fairly clear, with little success). That's why you keep them well away from the paraffin. And people put candles in their ears?!

  16. On April 22, 2007 at 7:57 pm, cwii68 wrote:

    "It really doesn’t relate to this topic, I just wanted to pick a fight because I am bored."

    The people who run this blog may disagree with me, but in the Internet communities I belong to, that's called "trolling". You're hijacking a discussion merely to cause a ruckus. If it was related to the topic, you could be forgiven. But as you freely admit, it doesn't relate.

    Getting on topic, what can we do about ghost stories? I have co-worker who is smart, serious and capable, except when it comes to stuff like ghosts. She told me several stories about how her house was haunted and different things that happened there. I could have brought up various physical and psychological explanations, but I doubt any of them would overcome her "real" experiences. I also doubt my stories of non-hauntings would serve a strong enough contrast.

  17. >I also doubt my stories of non-hauntings would serve a strong enough >contrast.

    The mother of a friend of mine was being visited by spirits in the night and was terrified. I sent my friend information about a sleep disorder that could cause these experiences, and her mother went to a sleep therapist and is hence doing fine.

    I wonder if there are stories about people who have seen ghosts and then found out what was really happening? Not to elaborate on the physical and psychological explainations, but to tell the story of someone who found out they were being "duped" in some way?

    In other words, I don't think it does much good for someone who's never believed in ghosts to tell their story. But for someone who had previously seen ghosts to then realize that something else was going on and to change their mind could be a powerful story.

    All in all, however, I think believing is ghosts is a lot less dangerous than many other superstitions.

  18. The trouble with ghosts is that ALL the evidence for their existence is anecdotal. It's not like alt med where you can at least fall back on a position supported by empirical evidence. For ghosts, all we have is the absence of evidence and a bit of contested debunking stuff about infra-sound and magnetic fields.

    I certainly don't endorse telling an anecdote that isn't true, but I can think of several 'ghost sightings' which turned out to be a chimney draught or something similar. If you phrase it in the same speech that the other person uses, it might be quite interesting. For example "oh, I saw a ghost once! It was really frightening, there was this horrible creaking on the stairs and then a white streak rushed out and was gone. It turns out the neighbour's cat had come in while the back door was open! Just goes to show."

    Or how about one of my favourite stories? Put this one into your own words and see what effect it has on a woo. I'd be interested to know!

    "Could infrasonic waves could be the explanation for certain ghostly apparitions? In 1998 Vic Tandy, a lecturer at Coventry University, discovered that the haunting of a laboratory was not caused by a ghost with a passion for science, but by a 19 Hertz infrasound wave created by an extractor fan…

    A ‘spook’ had been seen in the laboratory… But it seems that that the infrasonic waves in the room may have been responsible by making people’s eyeballs vibrate, causing blurring of their vision and hallucinations at the edges of their visual field. Since exorcising the ghost in the laboratory, Vic Tandy has gone on to discover that infrasound waves were also the cause of the supposed hauntings of a 14th century cellar in Coventry."

    Writerdd, I agree that believing in ghosts is largely harmless.  It's the alt med stuff that really gets me angry.

  19. What do you do when the believer responds with, "Well, maybe she wasn't following the special diet properly," or "maybe she wasn't taking enough vitamins," or "maybe she was thinking too many negative thoughts," and so on?

  20. It's a good question, Leah. I don't know the answer to that, I've only seen this tactic in action once and it worked well, hence my call for others to try it out. I'd like to hear about what does actually happen to others. Maybe questions like the ones you mention will be raised, or maybe they won't.

    But there are always going to be hardcore believers who won't be swayed by any argument at all. I guess I'm more hopeful about the casual believer or even the fence-sitter. Some folk are so married to their pet beliefs that they will have any answer to any objection. I know some skeptics like that too. I think the worldviews at the ends of the spectrum are pretty unshakeable, although the guy in my story is a full-scale woo.

  21. Leah,

    I guess one response would be "How many vitamins *is* enough then? How many negative thoughts *are* too many? Does your system always work (or usually work) if people follow it properly? If someone's making money out of appearances or book sales promoting the diet cure, surely they must know how successful it is – what are their figures, and where did they get their figures from?"

  22. Didn't Richard Wiseman speak about investigating the effects of low frequency sound on making people think they were being haunted, etc? In an interview on the Skeptic's Guide podcast, no less!

  23. I think this is one of those things where the reason or motivation behind the communication is most important. And why are they telling it to you in particular? If someone is telling you about ghosts for instance, they're probably talking about something that scared them, or something to say the world is a mysterious place. If your answer is invalidating that, you've got a pretty tough sell ahead.

    Id be interested in what research (if any) theres been on the best way to discuss these issues. I suspect the main problem here is any method that can be used to effectively debunk is also what can be used to reinforce them, as suggested above with 'woo' medicine. Its a bit of an arms race really, and in my view the only way to win is with detailed education in scientific method applied to the particular topic. Which basically means we have to choose our battles, because that takes a lot of resources.

    One really promising example in this area that comes to mind for me is some of the advances made with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and the powerful cleaning rituals some people experience. Its been found that just doing very high levels of education about disease and contamination issues can have a huge effect on improving outcomes, when previously it was thought that such strongly irrational beliefs could only really be helped by getting people to practise quite distressing exposure rituals. If you put the work in, you get results.

    The problem is we want something quicker, that we can use at dinner parties. Im not sure it really exists, apart from the odd handy example like the above 'they died' one, and even that can be countered.

  24. I don't see any reason to be careful driving my car because a friend of mine was in a horrific car accident and he lived, so that proves that car accidents can't kill you. I don't know what it was that saved my friend, but avoiding an accident obviously had nothing to do with it, so I'm not going to drive carefully anymore. Instead I'll just put my faith in whatever it was that saved my friend.

    I'm making this up, but you get my point. You can do this with anything.

    The things is, unlikely things do happen, and their unlikeliness is what makes them remarkable, which makes survivors who beat long odds more inclined to go around talking about it, which means people hear these things over and over to the point where they begin to believe that they embody some kind of phenomenon.

    To put it another way, sooner or later, somebody always wins the lottery, but they never interview the loser on the news, do they? I mean, imagine them interviewing every single schmuck who ever bought a lottery ticket and didn't win. You'd almost start to get the point that your own chances of winning are so close to zero that you'd never buy another lottery ticket.

  25. “My friend also rejected medical treatment in favour of the special diet. She died. Painfully”

    This is so correct. Belief in something without a rational basis can be a very dangerous game to play. Nobody pays much attention to the folks who downed some herbal remedy only to still get sick. Or die.

    Something else that's so bothersome about alt-med and faith-med is the fervent belief people have in treatments which are so surprisingly selective. Why is it that alt-med stuff only seems to be effective on things like cancer (which can go into remission) or the common cold (which your own body can fix without any help) or depression (ditto) and never on things like AIDS? Most alt-med stuff seems to "cure" problems that can go away on their own and as someone mentioned above, proponents only seem to report on the successes, never the failures.

    To put a finer point on it, why is it that God can cure lameness (only at a sermon, mind you), but yet he can't cure decapitation? Nothing should be out of bounds for the Creator. Your body could be burned to ash and God should be able to bring you back good as new, given enough prayer. Surely an amputee's church can pray as hard as folks on some telethon and have one of their own wake up the next morning with a new leg. But that never _ever_ seems to happen. Obviously I'm thinking of a website like whydoesgodhateamputees.com — it's in your face, sure, but it makes a very good point. Believers need to spend a bit of time pondering the step by step methods of rational thought before they jump to conclusions about the parts of the universe we don't understand yet.

  26. Thad said "Didn’t Richard Wiseman speak about investigating the effects of low frequency sound on making people think they were being haunted, etc?"

    Yes, he did indeed and I believe that this subject is covered in his new book Quirkology. Worth checking out of you want to know more, plus there's some very funny stuff in there that has nothing to do with ghosts!

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