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The expression anecdotal evidence refers to evidence from anecdotes. In cases where small numbers of anecdotes are presented, there is a larger chance that they may be unreliable due to cherry-picked or otherwise non-representative samples of typical cases. Anecdotal evidence is considered dubious support of a generalized claim; it is, however, within the scope of scientific method for claims regarding particular instances. Anecdotal evidence is no more than a type description (i.e., short narrative), and is often confused in discussions with its weight, or other considerations, as to the purpose(s) for which it is used. This is true regardless of the veracity of individual claims.
The term is often used in contrast to scientific evidence, such as evidence-based medicine, which are types of formal accounts. Some anecdotal evidence does not qualify as scientific evidence because its nature prevents it from being investigated using the scientific method. Misuse of anecdotal evidence is an informal fallacy and is sometimes referred to as the "person who" fallacy ("I know a person who..."; "I know of a case where..." etc. Compare with hasty generalization). Anecdotal evidence is not necessarily representative of a "typical" experience; in fact, human cognitive biases such as confirmation bias mean that exceptional or confirmatory anecdotes are much more likely to be remembered. Accurate determination of whether an anecdote is "typical" requires statistical evidence.
The term is sometimes used in a legal context to describe certain kinds of testimony. Psychologists have found that people are more likely to remember notable examples than typical examples. When used in advertising or promotion of a product, service, or idea, anecdotal reports are often called a testimonial, which are banned in some jurisdictions.
In all forms of anecdotal evidence, its reliability by objective independent assessment may be in doubt. This is a consequence of the informal way the information is gathered, documented, presented, or any combination of the three. The term is often used to describe evidence for which there is an absence of documentation, leaving verification dependent on the credibility of the party presenting the evidence.
In science, definitions of anecdotal evidence include:
- "casual observations or indications rather than rigorous or scientific analysis"
- "information passed along by word-of-mouth but not documented scientifically"
Anecdotal evidence can have varying degrees of formality. For instance, in medicine, published anecdotal evidence by a trained observer (a doctor) is called a case report, and is subjected to formal peer review. Although such evidence is not seen as conclusive, it is sometimes regarded as an invitation to more rigorous scientific study of the phenomenon in question. For instance, one study found that 35 of 47 anecdotal reports of drug side-effects were later sustained as "clearly correct."
Anecdotal evidence is often unscientific or pseudoscientific because various forms of cognitive bias may affect the collection or presentation of evidence. For instance, someone who claims to have had an encounter with a supernatural being or alien may present a very vivid story, but this is not falsifiable. This phenomenon can also happen to large groups of people through subjective validation.
Anecdotal evidence is also frequently misinterpreted via the availability heuristic, which leads to an overestimation of prevalence. Where a cause can be easily linked to an effect, people overestimate the likelihood of the cause having that effect (availability). In particular, vivid, emotionally charged anecdotes seem more plausible, and are given greater weight. A related issue is that it is usually impossible to assess for every piece of anecdotal evidence, the rate of people not reporting that anecdotal evidence in the population.
A common way anecdotal evidence becomes unscientific is through fallacious reasoning such as the Post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, the human tendency to assume that if one event happens after another, then the first must be the cause of the second. Another fallacy involves inductive reasoning. For instance, if an anecdote illustrates a desired conclusion rather than a logical conclusion, it is considered a faulty or hasty generalization. For example, here is anecdotal evidence presented as proof of a desired conclusion:
There's abundant proof that drinking water cures cancer. Just last week I read about a girl who was dying of cancer. After drinking water she was cured.
Anecdotes like this do not prove anything. In any case where some factor affects the probability of an outcome, rather than uniquely determining it, selected individual cases prove nothing; e.g. "my grandfather smoked 40 a day until he died at 90" and "my sister never went near anyone who smoked but died of lung cancer". Anecdotes often refer to the exception, rather than the rule: "Anecdotes are useless precisely because they may point to idiosyncratic responses."
More generally, a statistical correlation between things does not in itself prove that one causes the other (a causal link). A study found that television viewing was strongly correlated with sugar consumption, but this does not prove that viewing causes sugar intake (or vice versa).
In medicine anecdotal evidence is also subject to placebo effects: it is well-established that a patient's (or doctor's) expectation can genuinely change the outcome of treatment. Only double-blind randomized placebo-controlled clinical trials can confirm a hypothesis about the effectiveness of a treatment independently of expectations.
By contrast, in science and logic, the "relative strength of an explanation" is based upon its ability to be tested, proven to be due to the stated cause, and verified under neutral conditions in a manner that other researchers will agree has been performed competently, and can check for themselves.
Witness testimony is a common form of evidence in law, and law has mechanisms to test witness evidence for reliability or credibility. Legal processes for the taking and assessment of evidence are formalized. Some witness testimony may be described as anecdotal evidence, such as individual stories of harassment as part of a class action lawsuit. However, witness testimony can be tested and assessed for reliability. Examples of approaches to testing and assessment include the use of questioning, evidence of corroborating witnesses, documents, video and forensic evidence. Where a court lacks suitable means to test and assess testimony of a particular witness, such as the absence of forms of corroboration or substantiation, it may afford that testimony limited or no "weight" when making a decision on the facts.
Scientific evidence as legal evidence
In certain situations, scientific evidence presented in court must also meet the legal requirements for evidence. For instance, in the United States, expert testimony of witnesses must meet the Daubert standard. This ruling holds that before evidence is presented to witnesses by experts, the methodology must be "generally accepted" among scientists. In some situations, anecdotal evidence may meet this threshold (such as certain case reports which corroborate or refute other evidence).
Altman and Bland argue that the case report or statistical outlier cannot be dismissed as having no weight: "With rare and uncommonly occurring diseases, a nonsignificant finding in a randomized trial does not necessarily mean that there is no causal association between the agent in question and the disease."
- Anecdotal value
- Confirmation bias
- Empirical evidence
- Faulty generalization
- Hasty generalization
- Scientific method
- Post hoc ergo propter hoc
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