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Why research beats anecdote in our search for knowledge

Why research beats anecdote in our search for knowledge

Tim Dean, Philosopher at the University of New South Wales, Australia argues the power of scientific research, using the example of how medical research into the causes of disease has dramatically improved our life expectancy:

Why research matters

As Tim concludes: "If we value fact over falsehood then we should constantly remind ourselves of the dangers of certainty and the poverty of intuition. We should remind ourselves that our belief in something should be held with a conviction proportional only to the evidence we have in support of it.

And if we haven’t undertaken the rigours of research ourselves to uncover that evidence, then we should place greater credence on the words of those who have.

Certainty is seductive, wishful thinking is alluring and anecdote can be compelling. But they are also symptoms of a disease for which rigorous research is the only cure.

(I liked the reference to Tim Minchin's "What do you call alternative medicine that works? You call it Medicine." in the first comment!)


Photo: Superb Blue Wren. These tiny, but beautiful birds are very hard to photograph because they are so active.

3 Replies

Neil, I follow those sentiments to the letter. I have a scientific mind in that since I was a kid I wanted to be a scientist. I ended up being a computer programmer but the critical thinking, evidence gathering, considering the source of the information and so forth have helped me. I had someone telling me about a quack cure for cancer involving blueberries.

There is a Nobel prize out there for someone who can cure cancer. Instead I hear about someone who allegedly was cured by the quackery and the stories behind it but nothing showing any evidence. What else was happening? Was chemo involved still? Where are the before and after CT scans? What about the blood counts? Where's the double blind test?

I thank science, the doctors, nurses, and the researchers for giving me a better life and one day hopefully finding a cure.


Very interesting and relevant article - thanks Neil. I think lots of us are more influenced by hearing one person's own personal experience, than by reading the facts and figures about hundreds of anonymous people in a scientific paper.

People's own stories are interesting - they influence us at gut level and stick in our minds. But our "gut reactions" aren't always to be trusted. With such a variable disease such as CLL, there will be so many different experiences, different ways the disease progresses, different reactions to treatments...

It's great to hear the human stories, to know how different individuals are experiencing things, especially in a supportive community like this one. And we don't want to be all cold and calculating in our thought processes. But "anecdote is not evidence" (as Tim Dean's article says) . We need to see the bigger picture, the more "proven" picture, that can come from scientific research done with large samples of people under controlled conditions, Otherwise we can jump to wrong conclusions, maybe dangerous conclusions, by assuming something is relevant to our own situation, when it isn't.

I suppose all that is obvious really, but I recognise that sometimes I find myself being swayed in one direction for reasons that are more emotional than logical. And there may be other times when that is happening, but I don't recognise it...

Another point is that people can be influenced by someone just because they are dogmatic about something, even if the reality is not so black and white. I've gone to the opposite extreme now, and feel much more trusting of someone who sees lots of sides to situations.


P.S. I've just noticed Remington Steele's post, and completely agree with him. (Though I ended up being a nurse not a computer programmer).

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Aussie, Your posts are always magnificent. This is a tremendous problem for everyone in the modern world where "information" assaults us at every juncture. Holding a Ph.D. in psychology and having trained others for an entire career, I am a full respecter and consumer of the scientific method. Yet even at this, since diagnosis in November 2011 and immediate FCR(good continuing remission), I found myself largely overwhelmed with the magnitude of my inability to separate wheat from chaff in the continuing effort to educate myself. Having discovered this forum and a couple of others has done wonders for providing a rich source of information, opinion and advice from highly credible and informed people---- patients, scientists, and physicians. I am personally grateful for the effort that you and others have all expended to bring this kind of support and validated information to all of us along this journey. As I face ongoing remission, but an uncertain future, the work CLLSA and others have done to keep the best science before us has added the knowledge that makes courage its strongest.

Your photos are superb. Beauty first in life!

Thank you,



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