What is Anecdotal Evidence?
Anecdotal evidence has several definitions, which usually relate to how certain types of evidence cannot be used to logically conclude something. We see examples of this type of evidence all the time in commercials. A person tells us how their breath feels fresher after using a certain brand of toothpaste, or people testify to the clearing of their acne as a result of special products. This type of evidence is often used in place of clinical or scientific evidence, and may completely ignore research or harder evidence that points to an opposite conclusion.
Types of anecdotal evidence include claiming non-factual information based on the experiences of a few people, stories that would seem to contradict factual information, and word of mouth recommendations. This type of information isn’t always poorly intended or untrue, and we base a lot of decisions on anecdotes. For instance, you might want to find the best dry cleaner in town and ask a few friends to recommend someone. You usually don’t have time to perform true scientific testing on this by looking at a range of data.
We take other recommendations from non-experts all of the time. We may base our decisions about which doctors to see, who should baby-sit our kids, what travel agency we ought to use, or where we should stay on vacation solely or at least partly on advice. This advice usually doesn’t come from people who are qualified to give an expert opinion on the matter.
Where anecdotal evidence gets very problematic, though, is when people make decisions that may affect their health or well-being based solely on it. For instance, there are many herbal medications and alternative medical theories and treatments that people decide to use largely based on anecdote. Now sometimes a preponderance of this evidence may suggest that there’s a good reason to try different things, but unfortunately many of these alternative treatments and therapies are not just there for the health and happiness of humans. People who offer them are profit motivated too.
If you look at most diet supplement websites for instance, you’ll probably find tons of testimonials that are truly anecdotal evidence. These testimonials seem to lend credence to the idea that each diet treatment will be tremendously effective. Yet we know they are not. When people are desperate to lose weight though, they may cling to these testimonials and information presented as “evidence,” and occasionally risk their health by taking things that are not safe and haven’t been proven safe. At minimum they waste money on products that simply don’t work.
Another definition of anecdotal evidence refers strictly to legal matters. When someone gives testimony that can’t be proven by its nature, and is thus in doubt, it is called anecdotal or hearsay. Some witnesses may be banned from giving evidence that is anecdotal in nature. It doesn’t mean that their testimony is untruthful, but it does mean that there is no way to verify this testimony.
Whether it be anecdotal or scientific evidence, the reality is that they are both, 50/50 when it comes to results. Science claims its quest is unbiased and its studies are controlled in a way that results in empirical evidence. The reality is any results can be swayed, and are swayed for the benefit of someone. It's all about the money. There is no benevolence of mankind. Whether it's natural, anecdotal or a scientific breakthrough, at the end, it's 50/50.
I'm no doctor, but I stumbled across alternative medicine's weaknesses about a year ago, and as of yet in my reading I have found none of these mostly anecdotal treatments that are actually backed up by the evidence (as in, when you actually research the primary sources, the studies, e.g., in PubMed and Google Scholar). "Mainstream" medicine can be biased too, but has more evidence behind it, whereas alternative medicine's sellers are biased and have no proof of their claims (you may be able to find exceptions to this, but I haven't so far).
Unfortunately though, anecdotal evidence tends to sway the public more than research (and it definitely has less of a learning curve to it - no "etiologies" or "morbidities" to wade through). I think the Wikipedia article is a bit better at explaining the weaknesses of anecdotal evidence than this page, though.
Unfortunately, it's easy of the author/s of this article to pick on alternative treatments' supposed lack of factual evidence when in actuality there are loads and loads of these peer reviewed trials on the efficacy of these options. Problem is. that the the promoters of mainstream's supposedly proven remedies have a vested interest themselves. Open minded assessments are very necessary in these matters.
I think that one of the worst uses of anecdotal evidence is in medical commercials and testimonials. I would advise anybody who is considering a treatment based solely on testimonials to reconsider.
You would think this wouldn't be such an issue, but unfortunately many older or under-educated people are more likely to seek a medical treatment based on anecdotal evidence ("Well, Jimmy had a problem like mine and he tried this and it worked for him...").
Every person's body and conditions are different, and you should never, ever let anecdotal evidence sway you when it comes to choosing medical treatment.
Another area where this is unfortunately common is in alternative healing clinics. Sure, there are some that are excellent, reputable healers. But be very aware that many testimonials for such clinics are either made up or greatly exaggerated; and even if they are true, then there's no reason to assume the same treatment will work for you.
Again, I'm not trying to completely discount anecdotal evidence -- just take it with a grain of salt, please.
Not all anecdotal evidence is bad though. In some cases, you really don't need a scientific analysis, you just need a personal opinion. For instance, if you are trying to choose a preschool for your child, you don't need statistics on local preschools, or an analysis of how that particular school's building is laid out. All of that information may be fine, but it's much more important to get anecdotal evidence, testimonials from other parents whose kids go to that school.
So I guess what I'm saying is that although there's nothing wrong with scientific, hard evidence, anecdotal evidence has its place too, and you shouldn't neglect to get anecdotal evidence when appropriate.
It really is quite unfortunate how many people take anecdotal evidence as hard proof. It should be banned from being used in trials, because it's too easy to sway a jury with this kind of evidence.
Although this can make life more difficult for plaintiffs, it is also so necessary to protect the standards of evidence in the legal system.
Unfortunately, such evidence can be very convincing because it is often personal and emotional -- but that simply does not make it admissible.
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