The Plural of Anecdote Is Not Data

As I have said before, there is no such thing as complimentary medicine or alternative medicine or traditional medicine; there is evidence based medicine and there is quackery. Any alternative therapy that is proven to work is simply incorporated into the fold and becomes a part of mainstream medicine.

I reiterate this now because I just had another encounter, with a trained scientist (sigh), who recommended I try acupuncture to help me sleep. They said I looked tired and that the acupuncture might help to ‘straighten me out’. I was, indeed, tired but that’s because I have a full time job, a child and I go to bed late. Long before I get to the point where I’m letting some gullible acupuncturist randomly stick needles in me I will probably just have a go at going to bed earlier.

The reason they made such a recommendation was that ‘my brother tried it and it worked perfectly’. This is not evidence, this is an anecdote; and as the title of this post says: the plural of anecdote is not evidence. It wouldn’t matter if a million people all lined up to tell me that acupuncture had helped them sleep better, that doesn’t make it so. The only thing that would convince me of such an unlikely solution would be a series of independent, double blinded, placebo controlled, randomised controlled trials; the gold standard of evidence based medicine.

I find this all very frustrating. Why do people put such weight behind evidence that isn’t worth the breath that uttered it? Obviously not everyone is a scientist and most people wouldn’t know how to interpret the data that’s out there, especially for something like acupuncture where there is a lot, and I mean a lot, of very badly designed studies out there that look like they’re legitimate to the untrained eye.

It is a dangerous gambit to try and fit every piece of human behaviour into an evolutionary framework but I think there is some insight to be had in this case. When we were fending off lions on the savannah if your brother told you there was one in that long grass over there then it paid to take heed. The consequences of believing him were slight, the consequences of not believing him were potentially disastrous. If your wise old grandmother told you the purple berries were good to eat but the red ones were to be avoided then the people who took her word for it probably fared better. It isn’t completely beyond the realm of possibility, then, that we are hardwired to trust experience, either others or our own, over logical thought processes.

Logical, critical thought is certainly not something that comes naturally to most of us. It has to be learnt. I know that I was certainly very credulous in my younger years, hopefully I’m over the worst of it.

So if it is in our very nature to accept testimonials as a reasonable basis for fact what chance do we realistically stand for creating a more rational and informed society? Here I believe we can learn from our arch nemesis, religion: get them whilst they’re young. I am a governor at my daughter’s school, a role I very much enjoy, and have been given the specific responsibility of working with the science lead to ensure pupils are given the best possible start in their scientific training.

Science teaching at the school is coming along in leaps and bounds and has a very high profile. The children seem to genuinely enjoy it and, crucially, they aren’t just being taught facts they are being taught the method of science. In an environment that is okay with them making mistakes they are encouraged to make hypotheses, test them out and then refine those hypotheses based on observation. I take no credit for this, that all belongs to the science lead who has really pushed science in the last year, I just provide a little oversight and support where I can.

If you are a trained scientist, or even just an enthusiastic citizen scientist or sceptic, then I encourage you to get involved with your local school. You don’t have to be a governor, you could volunteer to give a talk or a demonstration. I’ve talked at a careers fair and shown the kids how to extract DNA using household items. I’m fairly confident the school will be open to approaches, they’re often crying out for help from the local community. Get involved. Don’t malign the society we live in without doing your best to get in there and do something about it. Who knows, you might even enjoy it.

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