Listening to Stories
by Guest Blogger,
Dr. Tyler Kokjohn, PhD.
Examining evidence of paranormal experiences may be disagreeable to many scientists because it deals with weird events and so often places heavy emphasis on personal accounts lacking independently confirmable details. In stark contrast, scientists are accustomed to testing hypotheses directly by conducting repeated, controlled experiments which yield a veritable bonanza of reliable data.It gets worse. Evidence of paranormal experiences is often limited to the recollections and impressions of a single individual struggling to describe unfamiliar events which appeared without warning. Objective data suggests human beings may not always perceive or remember events accurately. Marshaling direct DNA evidence, The Innocence Project (www.innocenceproject.org/) has now exonerated over 300 persons convicted of serious crimes and revealed witness testimony is clearly not always as reliable as we need it to be.
With its many weaknesses and intrinsically untrustworthy nature, it seems scientists probably long ago abandoned using anecdotal evidence. Not so fast. It can be useful and has been the initial impetus sparking some important discoveries.
In his book Virus Hunters (1), Greer Williams tells the story of an English country physician who listened to a milkmaid when she told him that having a previous cowpox infection would prevent her from getting smallpox. Spurred by her story, Edward Jenner developed the process he dubbed vaccination to prevent smallpox using the far less dangerous cowpox virus.
Those events took place over two centuries ago, but more recent examples of physicians and scientists initiating investigations after hearing anecdotal accounts or receiving unconfirmed evidence are available. The recognition of Lyme Disease and its etiologic agent in the U.S., the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, came about when a woman noticed the large number of juvenile arthritis cases in the area and called state health authorities to express concern (2). The first published inklings the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) had appeared resulted from an immunologist evaluating interesting cases for teaching purposes and hearing about the existence of similar patients (3).
Perhaps you have the heard the quip, ‘the plural of anecdote isn’t data’? That truism is undeniably true, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anecdotal evidence is useless. Recognizing that it may not be informative, accurate or typical, aggregated and used in proper context it can be invaluable. The Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS; http://vaers.hhs.gov/index) is a post-marketing safety surveillance program for vaccines licensed in the U.S. This program enables health care providers and patients to report issues arising after immunizations thereby enabling side effects to be detected as well as providing a clearinghouse to convey information directly to the public.
Skeptical assessment of personal paranormal experience accounts is challenging. The person relaying the account may be unaware all evidence is not deemed equally valuable by investigators. Stories without independently confirmable details or influenced heavily by experiencer confirmation bias do not often lead far. And most people do not have sufficient training or experience to capture totally reliable information under the best of circumstances. Confronted with a story and asked to render an immediate verdict, a more productive approach might be to simply pose a series of informational questions to define as completely as possible what was experienced, where, when and by whom. Investigate as far as possible because while merely asking the proper questions probably won’t reveal any earth-shaking data, it may show the experiencer – or the skeptic – what to be alert for the next time.
Anecdotal evidence has sharp limitations and communication between skeptics and experiencers may be frustrating. However, we can train ourselves to listen more effectively (4) and the evidence tells us all that sometimes the effort really can pay.
- Greer Williams. 1960. The Man Who Listened to a Milkmaid, pp. 16. In Virus Hunters, Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
- Abigail A. Salyers and Dixie D. Whitt. 1994. Lyme Disease and Syphilis, p. 290. InBacterial Pathogenesis. A Molecular Approach. American Society for Microbiology Press, Washington, D.C.
- Elizabeth Fee and Theodore M. Brown. 2006. Michael S. Gottlieb and the Identification of AIDS. American Journal of Public Health; 96(6): 982-983. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1470620/
- John W. Drakeford. 1967. The Awesome Power of the Listening Ear. Word Books.