To think ancedotal evidence does count?

(47 Posts)
Angelfootprints Wed 20-Feb-13 17:49:23

I have seen an increasing tactic on threads to dismiss anecdotal evidence From the "opposition". Especially on topics that are subjective ( religion, feminism , classism etc)

I think anecdotal evidence does count. It forms our life experiences and not everything can be measured in a scientific way. Some studies could be outdated, have an agenda or misinterpreted findings.

Science and studies don't always have the answers.

For example have been having medical problems which recently might be caused by a certain medication. There is no scientific studies to confirm this, yet googling this medication I have seen lots of women report these problems. Should I ignore all the anecdotal evidence because science (and the doctors) say it can't be true?

I think experiences from living, breathing people can be just as valid.

valiumredhead Wed 20-Feb-13 17:50:36

I quite agree although I was told the other day on a thread that my experience didn't count at all grin

The plural of anecdote IS data. This is often misquoted but fundamentally if you take every bodies anecdotal experience, you are collecting a body of data.

VivaLeBeaver Wed 20-Feb-13 17:56:47

It depends whether the anecdotal experience contradicts proper research or whether its an anecdotal experience into something which hasn't been researched fully.

For instance breastfeeding, the research is unequivocal. However you'll get lots of women on threads saying they formula fed and their child never had ear infections, asthma, eczema, is top of the class, etc.

Angelfootprints Wed 20-Feb-13 18:07:30

Does that mean those women are wrong though Viva? After all, it is their experience?

amillionyears Wed 20-Feb-13 18:10:25

Quite agree Angel.
Though sometimes our anecdotes can be a bit circumstancial.

So eg, I think bird numbers are increasing,
But according to the RSPCA, and other people in the country, bird numbers are falling.

I am definitely seeing more birds, and so are others in my area.
But my anecdote is biased, as it is only based on a small area.

[this all assumes I know the real meaning of the word anecdote]

EllieArroway Wed 20-Feb-13 18:10:55

It depends on the anecdote and what it's trying to prove.

In the example you mention - lots of people having the same or similar reactions to a medicine - then it can be useful in setting up an hypothesis for science to investigate.

But most anecdotes that are being used to prove something are unfalsifiable and therefore useless.

Please don't be so dismissive of science. It might not have all the answers but it has a darn sight more than anything else does. Not a single mystery of life &/or the universe has been solved by anything other than science.

VivaLeBeaver Wed 20-Feb-13 18:13:51

No, of course they're not wrong. But you normally see those sort of comments on a thread where people are maybe making a decision on whether or not to breastfeed.

The women who had the experience aren't wrong but if someone uses those experiences to inform their decision then that's not really the best way to make a decision if the research with a much larger sample size is saying the opposite.

Cat98 Wed 20-Feb-13 18:16:01

Angelfootprints - of course it doesn't mean they are 'wrong', though they are certainly misguided if they are using their experience alone to rubbish scientific evidence.
They may be in the minority, this doesn't mean their experience is invalid, of course not, but when used for example as 'my child never went in a car seat but was fine' - well you can see the problem surely?

CloudsAndTrees Wed 20-Feb-13 18:20:10

I agree with you.

Angelfootprints Wed 20-Feb-13 18:20:40

Im not dismissive of science, I just think people sometimes blindly take it as the holy grail without questioning it or considering it could be wrong.

You only have too look through history. Things we believe now could well be proven wrong in the future.

Back to anecdotal evidence, as a small example science tells me I should first feel baby move at around 16 weeks.

I felt dc2 move at about 11 weeks. The HCP laughed this off, but only recently I saw a thread with other women saying they felt baby move long before 16 weeks. So are we all wrong and none of us really felt baby early at all?

kim147 Wed 20-Feb-13 18:21:16

Sample size, asking the right questions and understanding probability.

Of course some things aren't known by science yet or can't be proved by science and people use their own anecdotes to push their agendas.

kim147 Wed 20-Feb-13 18:22:54

angel Maybe the majority of women don't feel the baby moving till 16 weeks but a minority will.

And on a thread, you're more likely to hear people with similar experiences.

EllieArroway Wed 20-Feb-13 18:23:07

My DS was exclusively FF. He's never been ill & is reasonably smart etc. As far as I can tell, he's suffered no ill effects.

But this does not mean that the science that tells us that breast is best is wrong. Science is not basing itself on a sample of one - the sample is much, much larger and a trend emerges.

RichardSimmonsTankTop Wed 20-Feb-13 18:24:41

"Back to anecdotal evidence, as a small example science tells me I should first feel baby move at around 16 weeks."

Well that means that the median is probably 16 weeks, therefore you will get women feeling first movement between say, 10 weeks and 20 weeks. Just statistics, innit. Science isn't black and white or absolute, there are always anomalies of course.

EllieArroway Wed 20-Feb-13 18:26:38

I just think people sometimes blindly take it as the holy grail without questioning it or considering it could be wrong

Maybe some people do - but science itself doesn't. It's always, always questioning itself. That's how it moves on.

Don't know why your HCP said that about feeling your baby move. I was always told that you can feel babies in 2nd and subsequent pregnancies much sooner than you can in the 1st. For some experienced mums it's feeling the baby move that prompts them to POAS.

kim147 Wed 20-Feb-13 18:26:49

Percentiles, statistics - I love teaching statistics.
Unfortunately, many people - and especially the media - don't understand statistics (Daily Mail and Daily Express) and misuse them to push their agendas.

A sample size of 10 is not that impressive and does not mean we've cured cancer.

drmummmsy Wed 20-Feb-13 18:27:09

some well regarded sociological/psychological research is autobiographical - not unlike anecdote?

here for eg (and it's motherhood related)

DadOnIce Wed 20-Feb-13 18:28:43

The answer is "it depends".

It depends on a lot of things. What you are trying to make a case for, what the nature of the anecdote is... all sorts of stuff.

Anecdotal evidence is, by its very nature, subject to inaccuracy. Any police officer who has ever reported eyewitness statements at a crime scene will tell you this. ("Oh, yes, he was definitely black" etc.)

What a proper scientific survey and gathering of data does is to collect sufficient data for the "blips" and inaccuracies to be statistically insignificant.

It's a bit like the person who says "I know someone whose brother's wife's cousin is on benefits and lives the life of Riley, they've got plasma TVs and a big car and they go on holiday twice a year." This may not actually be untrue (allowing for a little exaggeration). What it almost certainly is, is statistically insignificant. This person is not representative of the vast majority of people on welfare, and this one anecdote needs to be set against the actual evidence which says that benefit fraud accounts for less than 1% of welfare spending.

Sorry to use a well-known MN "hot potato" as the example, but I think it makes the point pretty well!!

drmummmsy Wed 20-Feb-13 18:31:00

i suppose it's whatever side of the qualitative/quantitative paradigm you are on?

Angelfootprints Wed 20-Feb-13 18:35:08

There is also those things that are nearly impossible to prove with stats, as culture tells us otherwise.

A classic one being the isssue of men and porn. If a poster claims their dp doesn't watch porn they are met with a lot of opposition and often linked to the famous "we couldn't find a man who never watched porn study". There is the study. The evidence.

A lot of posters will mock the poster- but really your on to a losing battle as you cannot prove your position. How could you?It doesn't mean its not the truth though and what the poster is saying is invalid.

RedToothBrush Wed 20-Feb-13 18:36:13

Anecdotal evidence is important. If you believe strongly something then it subconsciously will affect your behaviour/reaction in some way.

Think placebo effect.

DadOnIce Wed 20-Feb-13 18:40:52

Well, the porn thing is a classic example of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in action - you affect the thing being studied by the act of studying it. The same is true of sex surveys in magazines - people won't be completely honest.

For things which you can't "prove" you can still collect evidence. Nobody can prove fairies don't exist, but given that every example of fairies so far found in the world is fictional or a hoax, one can comfortably draw the conclusion that they don't. Unless new evidence comes to light.

I suppose what I was saying above about anecdotes is that there will always be examples which appear to "contradict" or "disprove" a theory - until you look into them, weigh them against the other evidence, and realise they actually don't.

EllieArroway Wed 20-Feb-13 18:40:55

As Kim said - most people using stats to try and prove something don't really understand stats.

And all that study about porn demonstrates is that it is "unlikely" that a man has never looked at porn - not that there's absolutely no men anywhere that don't.

RichardSimmonsTankTop Wed 20-Feb-13 18:41:20

"A lot of posters will mock the poster- but really your on to a losing battle as you cannot prove your position. How could you?It doesn't mean its not the truth though and what the poster is saying is invalid."

If they're talking about their own experience of course it's not 'invalid', but if they're saying that their experience negates the science, yes, the conclusion that the person is drawing is incorrect.

EllieArroway Wed 20-Feb-13 18:44:09

Yeah - but Dad - they couldn't find any men in their sample (apparently) who hadn't looked at porn so couldn't make a comparative study.

Mind you - some might have been saying they had when really they hadn't, so you might be right.

Whyriskit Wed 20-Feb-13 18:47:43

As part of my degree I did some qualitative microanalysis of parent/child interactions. The professor supervising the project was world renowned in the field of child development but without stats it did all feel a bit woolly.

DadOnIce Wed 20-Feb-13 18:48:52

Yes, the key emotive word is "invalid". Statistically, a single person's anecdotal evidence is invalid - when it comes to actually being relevant for proving an argument wrong. That's not the same as saying it is invalid for them - it may have been valuable, meaningful, but it isn't relevant.

Often, it's simply confirmation bias in action. Anyone remember Derren Brown with the horse-racing? And the comparison with homeopathy?

kim147 Wed 20-Feb-13 18:58:50

I wish someone would tell Gove about evidence and statistics.
Evidence based research before jumping in with some new policy based on his experiences and a few anecdotes.

MrsDeVere Wed 20-Feb-13 20:32:37

Anecdotes add interest to research.
Statistics add meaning.

All the study I have undertaken has been in social care/history.

Anecdotal evidence is vital. Its about the human experience. Numbers alone are pretty meaningless.

But anecdotes do not provide an overall picture and they are of course highly subjective.

I am quite a fan of Mr Goldacre but he, along with fricken Freakanomics, is far to glibly and frequently used on MN to dismiss valid experiences.

KobayashiMaru Wed 20-Feb-13 20:47:12

If I smoke 40 a day yet live to be a hundred with never an illness, can I then tell everyone that I know for a fact that smoking does not cause cancer?

Your example shows you have somewhat misunderstood the point anyway.

DadOnIce Wed 20-Feb-13 20:51:46

You could bang your elbow on the table, run three times round your house widdershins, eat six apples, then pray to The Great Green Arkleseizure. Then if you run out of your house and narrowly avoid being hit by a car, you could claim that this proves the Great Green Arkleseizure exists because he saved you from being hit by a car. What, so the banging of the elbow, the running widdershins and the apples had no effect, then?

i.e. Most "anecdotal" evidence is just confirmation bias in practice.

andubelievedthat Wed 20-Feb-13 21:21:07

Small point ? perhaps ? but> the Copenhagen interpretation only works on a sub atomic level,when one tries to scale it up to the scale you speak of , it no longer applies,,and, it is a thought experiment .

delusionsofadequacy Wed 20-Feb-13 23:28:14

Slightly off topic but if the example in your op of the potential side effect is the case for you then you can report it to the mhra via their yellow card reporting system and then your anecdote will add to their statistics and who knows maybe it will become a recognised side effect!

Dismissing an argument as 'anecdotal' merely shows, more often that not, that the person making the comment is simply too lazy to engage with the argument.

What's more, citing some scientific study in response is frequently even worse because the studies, being of very limited application, normally don't prove the point that the person citing them intends to make.

If is, for example, perfectly possible to conduct a scientific study in which various people bang their elbows on the table, run three times round their houses widdershins, eat six apples, then pray to The Great Green Arkleseizure, then if you run out of their houses and see if you are hit by a car. You could then compare the results with a control group and remark that taking the above actions is associated with being more / less likely to be hit by cars. It wouldn't be a study much more worthless than many being churned out by universities worldwide, and doubtlessly would be circulated on the Internet as 'evidence' of how you can make yourself less likely to be hit by cars.

DolomitesDonkey Thu 21-Feb-13 06:29:24

Yanbu - by the very virtue of its nature evidence is often self-selecting anecdotal - particularly in light of the fact we don't conduct long-term laboratory experiments on homo sapiens. Sadly there are many unable to differentiate fact and logic from screaming mantra.

seeker Thu 21-Feb-13 06:32:43

Anecdote is not data because correlation is not causation.

Kungfutea Thu 21-Feb-13 07:36:42

Do you have any understanding of statistics toad and why what you said about how studies are carried out is meaningless?

kim147 Thu 21-Feb-13 08:32:46

"Anecdote is not data because correlation is not causation."

YY to that. grin

And just because 1 study shows something does not mean anything has been proved to be an effective cure (Daily Express - I'm looking at you)

For anyone interested in the (mis)use of statistics in real life, I'd recommend More or Less on Radio 4.

KobayashiMaru Thu 21-Feb-13 09:34:07

poor reporting of studies does not mean they are poor studies Tsk tsk, such fundamental misconceptions.

kim147 Thu 21-Feb-13 09:37:03

You can't prove anything with 1 study.
It may be a perfectly good study, well carried out, but you can't prove anything with a single study. It needs to be repeatable.

DadOnIce Thu 21-Feb-13 09:39:53

Dismissing someone as "too lazy to engage with the argument" usually shows that you haven't understood what the argument actually is about. HTH.

DadOnIce Thu 21-Feb-13 09:41:58

Sales of wine are shown to go up by 15% one Saturday night. The ratings of "Strictly Come Dancing" also go up by 15%. You can show a correlation on a graph between the increase in consumption of wine and the increase in viewers of "Strictly Come Dancing". It would, however, be inaccurate to presume the two are connected just because they form the same shape on a graph. You need to take account of other factors influencing an increase in wine purchase (maybe Oddbins had a special offer on that week) and other factors influencing the ratings of "Strictly Come Dancing" (maybe it was the semi-final, there had been a lot of publicity that week, different time-slot, etc., etc.).

Trills Thu 21-Feb-13 09:49:10

Poor reporting of studies does not mean they are poor studies. Yes.

A single anecdote may be true, it may be interesting, but it is unlikely to be a good basis for making a decision.

"I just think people sometimes blindly take it as the holy grail without questioning it or considering it could be wrong."

Anyone doing this does not understand how science works. That's not a reason to dismiss the scientific method, it's a reminder that people misinterpret and state as "if X then Y" on issues that are about risks and averages, not absolutes.

Science doesn't claim to prove anything. All a study can do us show that a theory hasn't proven to be false, for instance, general relativity showed Newtonian mechanics to be false, and currently we hold on to general relativity as it shows consistent results where theory matches data.

Could be that there comes a time when that is shown to be false too though.

Dahlen Thu 21-Feb-13 10:24:22

Anecdotal evidence does count in the sense that it is often the basis on which more scientific stiudies are based - i.e. someone sees a pattern in their own experiences or from what other people have told them and sets out to see if this is repeated on a larger scale, while factoring in appropriate controls, etc.

However, while anecdotal evidence can be strong, it isn't necessary accurate. Living in a particular area or among a certain social group can predispose you to the idea that what happens there is what happens everywhere, when really that area/group may be quite unrepresentative.

I agree with a lot of what ellie is saying.

Something anecdotal evidence is useful for is disproving. If you have a single contradictory example, that stands. It may not matter very much, but it's useful for stuff like when people say 'oh, all Christians believe gay people shouldn't marry'. In that situation just one person saying 'nope, I'm Christian and pro gay marriage' is enough. Though, then, naturally everyone ends up arguing about precise definitions of 'Christianity' and moving to the more general position 'most Christians believe ...'.

Occasionally I think the reason anecdotal evidence gets slammed on MN is it can come across as a little bit as if the person thinks their tiny, tiny, tiny amount of experience in the world really should count for more, proportionally, than it does.

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