What a Skeptic is suppose to do with anecdotesby Don Lacey on Aug. 22, 2012, under Critical Thinking, Freethought, History, Logic, Question of the Day!, Reason, Science, Skepticism
Critical Thinking is not something that comes natural to us. Robert Carroll, who has written several books and skeptical essays but achieved notability by publishing the Skeptic’s Dictionary online in 1994 says Skepticism is an Unnatural Act. It is difficult to get it right and the irony is that natural tendencies appear to run counter to the proper application of critical thinking. Take anecdotes (stories) for example. Stories are a short cut to our emotional selves. They are quite effective in getting a point across that is why the Bible is full of stories. There are often moral lessons in stories and they sometimes are used to communicate difficult subjects, but stories are not data and not evidence.
We use anecdotes all the time, however. There is a website called What’s the Harm? that appeared on the Internet just after TAM 5: Skepticism in the Media that is nothing but a collection of anecdotes. Tim Farley, the author of the site, is an Uber Skeptic and freely admits that an anecdote is not proof and goes further by saying that the plural of anecdote is not data. His site was created to show that sometimes irrational beliefs have been known to cause harm to individuals. That is not to say that if you have irrational beliefs, your life is in danger. As an example, he cites cases where a few people put too much faith in their GPS devices. In one case where “John Doe” listened to his GPS system when it said “turn right now”, he obeyed without considering the consequences. He collided with a structure, damaging his car and the structure. He was fined.
Clearly, “John Doe” is a special case and “normal” people would probably not blindly turn right into a wall of a building because the computer told them to. It’s a story. It illustrates that you shouldn’t give up all decisions to a machine on your dashboard but it doesn’t prove anything. You can’t say as a result of hearing this story that all GPS users are morons or that the technology is inherently dangerous. Yet we get similar appeals to our intellect constantly.
Not everyone that claims to be a Skeptic understands the limitations of anecdotal evidence. Some Skeptics become careless when emotions or highly respected friends are involved but it is precisely these occasions where we must buck our natural reactions and seek for verifiable evidence. It often seems very unnatural and sometimes uncomfortable.
A Skeptic can and should enjoy and in some cases believe the story but understand that anecdotal evidence is not scientific evidence. Usually the information is not based on careful study. Sometimes it comes in a statement that includes “Someone who.” For example, someone who knows cars told me that the VW is the best car ever made. Some reports come from unscientific sources or they are casual observations not based on scientific analysis. Mostly, they are word of mouth, hearsay, undocumented, and biased interpretations of reality. In most cases, a Skeptic should withhold belief and look for better, more substantial data.