“Stories, studies, and stouts” (Data vs. anecdotes)

ghost2Some persons who suffer leg cramps have reported relief in the form of snoozing with soap. Anecdotes like this have value in being the first step of scientific investigation, but some persons are content to let these be the end of the experiment. However, proof comes not from stories, but from metadata of peer-reviewed, double-blind, reproducible studies employing the Scientific Method and sound statistics.

Such studies are mighty boring compared to tales of ritual Satanic abuse, autism-inducing syringes, homegrown osteoporosis cures, Bigfoot run-ins, and the danger of getting cancer from breast implants, especially if you’re talking on a cell phone.

However, testimonials are unreliable due to bias, selective details, prevarication, a tendency to embellish them if encountered by a positive reaction, and a willingness to believe, from both the speaker and listener. Most stories get distorted through retellings, events get exaggerated, time sequences are reversed, and specifics become cloudy.

Furthermore, the anecdote usually only involves one person seeing the angel, hearing the ghost, or instantly zapping the flu with Therapeutic Touch. Since others cannot experience the same thing under identical conditions, there is no way to verify the experience. Selective thinking and self-deception can never be controlled and observed, which are necessary elements in scientific experimentation. With no way to test the claim, it’s impossible to determine if the experience was interpreted correctly.

Still, many persons put a lot of stock in anecdotes. One reason is unfamiliarity with the importance of the Scientific Method. Also, people seeking evidence for a Chupacabra, homeopathy, or reincarnation won’t find it in double blind studies or laboratories, so they have to rely on anecdotes and possibly shaky, out of focus videos.

The appeal to feelings is another factor. Some persons put value in testimonials because they are vivid, detailed, and emotional. This causes them to relate to the speaker and give a statement more value than is justified. Tales are often made by people who seem enthusiastic and honest.

Imagine a girl. That’s little to work with, so let me add that her name is Jenny, she’s 7, from Pocatello, Idaho, with thick medium-length blond hair. She loves to play with toy horses, listens to One Direction, and rides her bicycle every chance she gets. Last week, for cooked for the first time, making her favorite food, cinnamon rolls.

She just became more real to you. Throw in a congenital, potentially fatal kidney defect, a miracle wonder cure based on lemongrass, and a weeping mother grasped by Oprah, and you’re hooked. No way that the cold hard facts in 15 double blind reproducible studies could compete with that.

Less emotional testimonies can also get a free pass depending on the listener’s point of view. Someone into essential oils likely will accept without question a chat room story about eucalyptus vanquishing a boil. Billy Bo Jim Bob will be so overjoyed by a post from ETHunter about seeing a UFO accompanied by F-15s that he will heartily embrace it.

Even when stories can be verified, it’s not enough to establish its meaning beyond that one instance. If a 38-year-old man dies while taking a new medication, there’s no way to know if he would have died anyway, unless the autopsy shows a clear connection between the medication and death. This also applies to positive results with untested treatments. Anecdotes fail to mention the people who did not get better. One man may tell of slipping on a Q-Ray Bracelet to cure a rash, but you won’t hear about the 100 who tried it unsuccessfully. Nor would many persons be drawn to the headline, “Boy completes vaccine regimen without incident.” To highlight how easily cherry-picked anecdotes can be abused, it could be argued that cigarettes promote remarkable life spans because the oldest person ever verified, 122-year old Jeanne Calment, smoked for over a century.

Very few persons would accept this logic, owing to tobacco’s documented dangers. But when the unfamiliar is in play, combined with the fear of death, people can be swayed. Let’s say 10,000 people try an untested food and fitness regimen to battle lung cancer. Between spontaneous remission and misdiagnosis, maybe 50 and up being “cured,” and those are the ones highlighted. Or perhaps someone is made better after taking both proven and unproven medication, with the latter being the only one credited. These types of errors would be exposed in a scientific study, but not through anecdotes.

Kim Tinkham appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show to praise an alkaline diet, which she credited with curing her cancer. She later died of the disease. Because her case was fairly prominent, her death made the news. But in most cases, anecdotal stories never include these poignant endings. There are no follow-up studies or attempts at replication.

By contrast, there was a case study that included an instance of spontaneous remission of diabetes in an anonymous woman. In the anecdote world, that would be the end of it. But since this was a case study, we know the woman’s diabetes returned in a couple of years.

So that’s my take on anecdotes vs. evidence. I’m off now to enjoy an Imperial Stout on draft. It’s not only delicious, some guy at the bar told me it took away his Type 2 Diabetes.

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