ANECDOTAL EVIDENCE


Peter D. Thomas

(Investigator 13, 1990 July)


One of the most difficult aspects of investigation into such phenomena as ghosts, UFOs, monsters, and other bizarre events is that in few cases is the incident repeatable or reproducible on demand.

The evidence for the phenomenon or event is almost invariably anecdotal — that is, it depends upon the description of one or more witnesses and, as such, may be acceptable as evidence in a court of law but is not indisputable proof.

Reduced to the simplest terms, if you believe a witness implicitly, then the event had objective reality — it actually happened.

A court of law cannot take this simple course, particularly in a case of serious crime. Because a witness, A, stands up in the box and swears that he saw B shoot and kill C, that is not proof that B is guilty. A may be committing perjury, either because he shot C himself and hopes to save his own skin, or because he wants B out of the way and so accuses him of the crime which was in objective fact committed by D. Or, A may be mistaken in his identification of B who looks much like D.

However if in addition, evidence is submitted that B's fingerprints were found on the gun, a bullet with marks matching the barrel of which was taken from the body of the deceased C, a jury is likely to be satisfied that there is no reasonable doubt that B was guilty. The anecdotal evidence of A has confirmed the objective, scientific evidence yielded by an examination in a laboratory of the gun, the bullet and the corpse.

The clear distinction in legal practice between evidence and proof may become blurred in other fields. For instance, in the case of a UFO sighting, the anecdotal evidence of several credible witnesses is usually accepted by researchers as proof that a sighting is a real phenomenon and not fictitious or imaginary. In legal terms this is not proof, and nor is it acceptable to the sceptic or the scientist who must have evidence reproducible at will, or a process or event which can be studied objectively during its manifestation.


OBJECTIVE PROOF

The requirement by the sceptical scientific investigator of concrete, objective proof that a phenomenon has occurred, is followed by the need to examine the phenomenon and determine its nature in terms of the known laws of the physical universe.

Consider lightning. It is extremely difficult to predict just when and where this will occur. But that doesn't make it impossible to study it and determine its cause and effects. Once Benjamin Franklin had discovered by a simple (but dangerous) experiment with a kite that it was an electrical phenomenon, it was relatively straightforward to generate lightning in the laboratory.

So we need have no scruples about accepting lightning as a genuine phenomenon with an objective existence, and physical cause.

When the scientific sceptic applies the same rigorous discipline to religious dogma, beliefs or events, the proof of objective existence is usually not possible. The evidence for all the events on which the great religions of the world are founded is at best anecdotal, or based on hearsay, and little of that evidence would be admitted to a modern court of law.

The Lawgiving; the arresting of the sun; the parting of the Red Sea; the walls of Jericho; the Virgin Birth; the resurrection; the miracles of healing and of changing water into wine — many more examples are available -– cannot be accepted as real and objective by a scientific sceptic who applies the same rules of evidence and proof which are used to investigate UFO sightings, psychic healing, or a ghostly manifestation. Unless those religious events and miracles have rational explanations within the limitations of known physical laws, they must be rejected.


PSYCHOLOGICAL PROBLEMS

It is a well-documented fact that the incidence of psychological disorders among psychiatrists is higher than that of any other profession.

That may well stem from the stress and frustration of working in a field which purports but fails to cure people of those same psychological disorders. As Dr. Paul Wilson (of Queensland University) said: "[Psychologists and psychiatrists] have failed utterly to demonstrate that they can 'treat' or 'rehabilitate' human beings better than anyone else can." Prof. Hans Eysenck concluded (1960J that psychotherapy was no better than any service offered by any other helpers, such as G.P.s, and the specialized body of knowledge which psychologists and psychiatrists professed to have was, according to the evidence, non-existent. They are dispensable professions that, according to Dr. Fuller Torrey in his book "The Death of Psychiatry", deserve to die.

There is a grave danger in sceptical investigation of UFOs, ghosts, psychic phenomena, etc., that the investigator may succumb to schizophrenia or worse if he applies the same standards of evidence to his religious beliefs as those which are used to investigate frauds, fakes and psychic crooks.

The true atheist has no such problem. If he denies the reality or existence of anything non-material, anything based on anecdotal evidence, anything that cannot be examined, tested and reproduced by the accepted and known principles of the physical sciences, then he can consistently reject the ideas of life after death, life before birth, an omnipotent Creator, a spirit world, psychic phenomena, and the rest.

If all life, indeed, the whole visible universe, is merely the result of an accident, an unimaginable cosmic Big Bang, there is no need to admit the existence or reality of anything which doesn't fit into the logical laws of cause and effect enshrined in the physical sciences. The atheist can go through his short span of physical existence, cocooned by his comfortable knowledge of reality. He knows that that span will end in oblivion, because once the body is clinically dead, there is no further communication with the physical world.

Here, then, is the blueprint for the researcher — the true sceptic, as distinct from the dabbler. His or her motto must be — to paraphrase the old jingle:

"Scientific truth will always be
Things that you can touch and see."

Religious belief then becomes no more than belief in things that you can neither touch nor see, and which have no objective reality. Marx and Lenin and the Russian revolutionaries maintained that all religion was superstition, the "opiate of the people", and rejected it as having no part in the Communist state, which was based on Socialist Realism. This wholesome approach has been supported by famous scientists in the Western world, such as H.G. Wells and Prof. Haldane, who were able to pursue their studies into the nature of the physical world unencumbered by superstitious beliefs.


PRACTICAL PROBLEMS

The sceptic has no alternative but to clear his mind of schizophrenia-inducing superstition before he can lay any claim to being scientific and objective in his pursuit of the paranormal. Otherwise, he is liable to fall into the trap of the religious bigot who says "My beliefs are correct; yours are wrong."

A similar problem is presented by anecdotal evidence. Obviously all witnesses are not equally qualified. The testimony of an expert witness in a law court, rightly or wrongly, is usually given more credence than that of our friend A, mentioned earlier, and his ilk.

A partial solution to the problem of witness credibility, and an elementary precaution in evaluating anecdotal evidence, is to assess the internal evidence contained in the text. The first test is to spot any contradictions and resolve them. This will help to eliminate hoaxes.

Another threat to sanity is presented by the intellectual shock of having to consider evidence of a kind which is completely outside the previous experience of a researcher. The natural intellectual reaction is "Impossible!" "Rubbish!" or some similar negative, subjective response, which immediately sets up a barrier to objective, impartial research. Such a case would be presented by the subject under hypnosis who, in response to a question, announces that he or she is aboard a flying saucer on a trip to Mars, and then describes the ship, the planet, etc., and holds a conversation with the inhabitants. The extremes of reaction are, on one hand, that of the gullible "sponge" who uncritically "soaks up" the story; on the other, that of the hardnosed "expert" who refuses to look further because "stones can't fall from the sky".

Empirical knowledge is a particular trap. The OED defines an empiricist as a person relying solely on experiment, or a quack. In this category would be the person who uses an Ouija board to get predictions or communicate with the dead. Empirical knowledge is perhaps the converse of anecdotal evidence. It is the random but controlled collection of evidence by pursuing experiments without any theoretical backing or rationale, while the collection of anecdotal evidence leads to the pursuit of theories without experimental backing.

Progress in scientific research is made most effectively by using the trinity of theory, empirical knowledge, and anecdotal evidence in balanced proportions. To reject one or other, or to rely entirely on one or other, is as bad, and dangerous, as going to the extremes of scepticism or gullibility.
 

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