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The Anecdotal Menace: In science, stories might as well be stormtroopers

Star Wars

The Anecdotal Menace: In science, stories might as well be stormtroopers

ALWAYS tell me the odds.

Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AIPT cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. Every day this month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture and skepticism of pop culture.

To kick things off this year, psychologist Craig Foster, whose research focuses on pseudoscience and scientific reasoning, tells us why personal accounts, much like stormtroopers, always miss the mark.

Listen to the latest episode of our Star Wars podcast, Talkin' Tauntauns!

Science can be counterintuitive. People can have a hard time ignoring personal accounts or stories that seem to contradict scientific evidence, especially when they really want to believe something is true. “Sure, systematic studies don’t show that GMOs are harmful, but my father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate ate a papaya, and he died sometime after that.”

I’ll explain further using a tale from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Personal accounts and anecdotes are like stormtroopers. As anyone who’s seen a Star Wars movie knows, the number of stormtroopers doesn’t matter. Sure, they can hassle locals for hauling droids. They might even give R2-D2 a scar or two. But stormtroopers never determine the scope of the overall war.

Stormtroopers are superfluous because they’re easy to defeat. They shoot like their helmet holes were made to funnel Tarisian Ale. Their armor seems to be a thin, candy shell that somehow intensifies laser blasts. Every time stormtroopers get shot, they drop faster than a flat-Earther in an astrophysics course.

Similarly, it doesn’t matter how many stories people tell about a child who was vaccinated and then developed autism, or about feeling better after snorting turmeric, or about seeing a ghost after wolfing pot brownies on a camping trip in 1993. People frequently misinterpret coincidences as evidence for causality, mistake placebo effects as genuine, and misperceive their surroundings. Plus, human memories evolve over time, so what people remember might not match what actually happened.

In contrast, critical pieces of scientific evidence are like Jedi. Jedi are less numerous than stormtroopers, but they’re the most influential players in real scientific debates. Stormtrooper and rebel pilots might engage in Corellian hound-fighting outside the Emperor’s ultra-contemporary bay window, but it doesn’t matter. It all comes down to Luke, Darth Vader, and (for some reason) Gwyneth Paltrow.

Jedi include critical forms of careful, empirical research. It takes time to craft them and control their impurities, but they end up with incredible power and can singlehandedly demonstrate something magnificent. All those stories about “vaccine-injured children”? They all dissipate when researchers examine whether vaccinated children actually develop autism more than non-vaccinated children (they don’t).

Jedi also spring from an existing fund of knowledge – all the information that science has already gathered. Bigfoot, ghosts, psychic ability, facilitated communication, and magical health remedies are inconsistent with everything experts know about fossils, physics, complex communication needs, and human biology. They make about as much sense as a compassionate, intelligent queen hoping it could still work out with a pouty child murderer.

That’s why one great piece of scientific evidence can single-handedly destroy a transport-load of bad evidence. It takes all of those folk stories and says, “Then how do you explain this?” There isn’t a good explanation, so nonsense-promoters might say something about an unsubstantiated conspiracy, or about scientists being too conservative for the revolutionary truth they’re throwing down.

Rey could singlehandedly take on a million stormtroopers and she’s going to win, EVERY time.

Of course, there’s a lot of evidence that falls between the insignificance of anecdotes and the supremacy of established empirical research and existing scientific knowledge. For simplicity, I’ll call these the Landos of the scientific world.

Landos aren’t as influential as Jedi, but they still matter. Landos fill in a lot of gaps that Jedi can’t manage on their own. Heck, without Lando, Leia might still be hanging out with Beats by Dre in Cloud City. Luke might still be hanging out underneath Cloud City.

The Anecdotal Menace: In science, stories might as well be stormtroopers

“I need puns like I need my right hand cut off.”

Landos include forms of empirical research that contain known, but acceptable, flaws. Scientists use them because not every Lando can be turned into a Jedi. Sometimes ideal research designs are impossible, or they cost too much. Sometimes research designs are compromised to protect participants. Researchers, can’t for example, examine extreme depression by making participants watch Howard the Duck on loop for 72 hours, Clockwork Orange-style.

Landos also include important pieces of information that fall on the outer rim of what people think of as scientific research, like the discovery of a new dinosaur. Landos can also include reasoned arguments that use existing science to develop new ideas — “Hey look, the fossils on that coast match the fossils on that coast!”

This framework will help you stay on scientific target. People who bet too many Republic credits on stormtroopers end up telling their friends that drinking wombat urine definitely enhances lightsaber performance. That’s a bad place to be.

“But my friend said it really happened.”

The Anecdotal Menace: In science, stories might as well be stormtroopers

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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