Discuss conspiracies, mysteries and paranormal phenomena.
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Argument # 5: The â€œanecdotal evidence is invalidâ€ argument.
Stated as: â€œAll that we have to support paranormal claims is anecdotal evidence, which is unreliable and invalid evidence.â€
Corollary: â€œAnecdotal evidence is worthless as scientific evidence.â€
The â€œanecdotal evidence is invalidâ€ argument is perhaps the one most often used by skeptics, and also the core philosophical difference between believers and skeptics. In fact, this issue is often the impasse point that the debates between believers and skeptics reach. The term â€œanecdoteâ€ technically refers to an unpublished story or personal testimony. But in this case, it refers to any eyewitness account or claim of a paranormal nature without hard evidence to corroborate it.
This classification is one of the main categories that skeptics put paranormal evidence into in order to dismiss it. (Another category being the â€œunreplicable / uncontrolledâ€ group that scientific experiments supporting psi are often put into. See Arguments # 17, 18) Skeptics who use this argument often claim that the evidence we have for paranormal claims is largely anecdotal and therefore worthless as scientific evidence. They also claim that anecdotal evidence is invalid because it is largely untestable and subject to error. Some skeptics will even go so far as to say that anecdotal evidence is zero evidence. Not surprisingly though, skeptics tend to quote anecdotal evidence when it supports their side! (another double standard) Therefore it appears that classifying evidence as â€œanecdotalâ€ is simply a dimissal tactic to try to discredit evidence that skeptics canâ€™t explain away.
There are many factual and critical problems with this tactic.
1) While it may be true that most of the paranormal evidence is largely anecdotal in nature, by no means is it true that they are worthless or invalid. The fact is that most anecdotes, personal accounts, and what we remember check out most of the time or at least point to something real. Rarely is it ever based on nothing at all. For example, if someone told me that there was a man dressed in a Santa Claus suit at the local mall taking photos with kids, the odds are that if I went to the mall to verify it, it would check out most of the time (and if the Santa dressed man isnâ€™t there at the time, he was there earlier at least). Or, if I went to the supermarket and asked the staff what aisle number the bread was at, most of the time the aisle he would tell me would be the one that has bread. Likewise, if I was inside a building and someone came in and said it was raining outside, most of the time it would check out. Either it would be raining now, or the wet floor would show that it was raining earlier. Similarly, when someone tells me what the ending is of a movie or book, it usually always checks out when I watch the movie or read the book. Itâ€™s that simple! There are countless examples like this that I could use, most of which are very mundane. Obviously, these types of simple ordinary everyday anecdotes point to something real. Now, since the skeptical philosophy about anecdotes doesnâ€™t hold up when applied to simple mundane examples, why should it be used to evaluate paranormal experiences and claims? It makes no sense at all.
One argument I use that always gets these skeptics goes like this. I ask them about a country theyâ€™ve never been to before, such as France for example. And I state it like this: â€œSince youâ€™ve never been to France before, and you have no real evidence that it exists other than anecdotes you heard, do you assume then that it doesnâ€™t exist for now? After all, the photos, videos, and souvenirs from that country could all be forgeries, you just donâ€™t know do you?â€ The skeptic will usually reply with â€œBut I can fly to France and verify that it exists.â€ And that answer totally misses the point, so I then counter with the key question â€œYeah but UNTIL you go to France, do you assume for NOW that it doesnâ€™t exist, based on your skeptical philosophy that anecdotal evidence is invalid?â€ That stumps them EVERYTIME! They NEVER have a response to that one.
Suffice to say, if these skeptics truly believed that anecdotal evidence in general is invalid, then they could not function in life, for they would not believe anything told. They would refuse directions when they are lost, they would disbelieve every story told to them during their family reunions (even by the most honest and credible of their family members), invalidate all reports given to them in their workplace, etc. They know it too, and most likely do not live that way. Therefore, as mentioned before, this is all just a word game play to them, not about seeking the truth.
2) Anecdotal is not considered zero evidence or worthless by our society. Anyone with common sense who isnâ€™t detached from society knows this. Courts consider eyewitness testimony as admissible evidence (though not proof). Employers consider reference letters, character references of friends and former employers, and background checks to be evidence of a job candidateâ€™s performance. Marketing people conduct surveys to get important useful information about the market. A degree of anecdotal evidence is relied upon in everyday society. Obviously, if anecdotal evidence was of zero value, it wouldnâ€™t be like this. But it is, so this demonstrates that these philosophical skeptics are all about playing a closed-minded philosophical word/labeling game, rather than being realistic about anything. Yet when confronted with reality, they continue to just throw labels and semantics out at them, until those who know better simply ignore them. Itâ€™s obvious that they either lack the most basic common sense, are in denial, or playing a deliberate game of philosophy.
Factors measuring degree of reliability in anecdotal evidence
3) What these pseudo-skeptics donâ€™t realize is that not only is anecdotal evidence mostly reliable with regard to everyday things, but its degree of validity is can be measured based on several factors.
a) The number of eyewitnesses, testimonials and claims.
b) The consistency of the observations and claims.
c) The credibility of the witnesses.
d) The clarity of and proximity of the observation.
e) The state of mind of the witnesses.
Here is an elaboration on these variables that determine the degree of reliability of anecdotal evidence, and how they have been more than adequately met for many paranormal phenomena.
a) The number of eyewitnesses, testimonials and claims. The more eyewitnesses, testimonies, and claims there are, the greater the weight of evidence. Anyone knows that, and almost everyone operates that way, except pseudo-skeptics of course. Now, if there was only one claim in the world of a psychic experience, that wouldnâ€™t be much. But if a considerable number of people told me the same thing including people I know and trust, then I might think that there could be something to it. And if has to do with a sizable proportion of the world population throughout history, then thatâ€™s incredibly significant. To put it simply, something is MORE likely to be true the more people attest to it. Itâ€™s not an absolute rule of course, just a general tendency overall. In the case of psychic experiences, surveys show that two-thirds of Americans claim to have had them, which is a significant number ranging over two hundred million in this country alone, not counting the rest of the world! Even the skeptical organization CSICOP admits this stat in articles on their website such as http://www.csicop.org/si/2001-11/alternative.html and http://www.csicop.org/list/listarchive/msg00047.html
b) The consistency in the observations and claims of witnesses. The consistency in the reports we get is also a significant factor that people consider. People trust consistency because it makes lying or mistake much less likely. Of course, consistency in observations and experiences does not mean that what was perceived was really what occurred, but it helps rule out fraud for the most part and points us in the right direction. This criteria is also met for some paranormal phenomena. In multiple witness sightings of ghosts and UFOâ€™s for instance, there are accounts of several or more people witnessing the same thing and describing the same details. Even more striking is consistency among people who donâ€™t know each other nor live near one another. For example, in the case of NDEâ€™s, we have great consistency among experiencers in the form of seeing their body below them, moving through a tunnel, going to a great light of love that some call God, going through a life review, returning with permanent life changes, etc.
c) The credibility of the witnesses. The credibility of those making the reports and claims is also relevant. Factors that influence credibility include integrity, character, whether theyâ€™ve been known to lie before, education and expertise, mental stability, how well we know them personally (obviously you would place more value in the claim of someone you know and trust as opposed to a stranger), etc. We definitely have anecdotal evidence from this group for various paranormal/psychic phenomena. That is indisputable. Doctors and scientists of esteemed reputations have attested to miracles or paranormal phenomena. Trained radar personnel and Air Force observers have observed UFOâ€™s both on radar and in the sky. Accomplished quantum physicists have found quantum evidence that make psychic phenomena more plausible, such as the discovery that particles behave differently when observed as opposed to unobserved, the nonlocality and connectedness of twin particles that are split, etc. (see Fred Alan Wolfeâ€™s Taking the Quantum Leap and Michael Talbotâ€™s The Holographic Universe) Prominent Psychiatrists such as Dr. Brian Weiss, author of Many Lives, Many Masters, have discovered and documented clinical evidence that past life memories are real and can be verified. Besides experts, people that we know and trust also claim to experience or observed things of a paranormal nature. Note that Iâ€™m not saying that an appeal to authority means that itâ€™s right, only that it carries more weight as a general rule.
d) The proximity and clarity of the observation. How close and clear an observation or experience takes place also an important factor. If someone thinks they see Bigfoot as a speck in the distance, then it could be dismissed as almost anything. However, if they saw Bigfoot at close-up point-blank-range, then it would be much more compelling and harder to dismiss. For the person to be mistaken at point-blank-range, he/she would have to be either lying or greatly hallucinating and in need of help. Otherwise, the skeptics should do some serious thinking about their beliefs! Again, this criteria has been met for some paranormal phenomena such as Bigfoot, UFOâ€™s and apparitions, which have been reportedly seen at point-blank-range in crystal clarity. Any research into will reveal lists of testimonials of this close-up nature.
e) The state of mind of the witness at the time. Another variable is the mental state of the witness, which include factors such as their alertness level, fatigue level, intoxication level, emotional level, fear and panic level, etc. This criteria has also been satisfied for paranormal/psychic phenomena because many of the witnesses were sober, awake and sane at the time of their observations and experiences.
f) What the witnesses/experiencers stand to gain from their testimony or claim. Whether the witnesses profit in any way is also a factor to consider, since it would put doubt on their sincerity if they have ulterior motives which might skew their objectivity. On the other hand, if they have nothing to gain then they are less likely to be manipulating us unless it was out of their genuine belief. This is especially so if theyâ€™ve suffered ridicule and damage to their reputation for their claims. The latter has been true for both paranormal experiencers as well as those who made new discoveries that validated paranormal phenomena. Esteemed scientists and experts in their fields have risked their reputations to share their discoveries. These include physicist David Bohm (a protйgй of Einstein and author of Wholeness and the Implicate Order) who postulated consciousness related quantum physics theories that contradicted the reductionist views of the universe, Miami Chair of Psychiatry Dr. Brian Weiss (author of Many Lives, Many Masters) who endured ridicule and criticism from his peers for his clinical reports and discoveries in past life regression, and others.
Now of course not all of the evidence for every paranormal and psychic phenomena have met all these criteria, but many of them have met some or all of them. Therefore we can conclude that the evidence for them is overwhelmingly strong, and certainly not zero evidence like pseudo-skeptics claim.
Ordinarily, anecdotal evidence this strong is accepted as valid evidence in most circumstances, so why not in regard to paranormal or psychic phenomena, especially when itâ€™s so common? The reason is because skeptics and certain scientists donâ€™t think these things are possible, therefore they assume that the fallibility of anecdotes must be the cause. In my experience with skeptics though, no matter how much better evidence you give them, they will still find excuses to reject them, even if it means imposing double standards, denying facts or preferring false explanations over paranormal ones. It is apparent that closed-minded skeptics arenâ€™t looking for evidence, but ways to shut it out to protect their views. After all, if theyâ€™re really looking for evidence, then why would they shut it out every time it comes up?
Even arch skeptic Bob Carroll of The Skeptic's Dictionary (http://www.skepdic.com) says that while anecdotal evidence may not be proof, but it helps point us in the right direction. (http://www.skepdic.com/comments/ndecom.html) This isnâ€™t saying of course, that we should believe every anecdotal claim out there. That would be foolish. This is just saying that just because an anecdotal claim doesnâ€™t fit oneâ€™s world view, doesnâ€™t mean that it must be due to mistake, fraud or hallucination. The bottom line here is that although lots of people saying something doesnâ€™t mean itâ€™s true, (the ad populum argument) it at makes it MORE likely to be true compared to if no one at all said it was true.
It can also be said that the skepticâ€™s subjective dismissal of anotherâ€™s experience is just as unreliable as any anecdotal evidence. Greg Stone, a consciousness expert and fierce knowledgeable debater on my discussion list, makes some intriguing points about how skeptics treat anecdotal evidence:
(referring to the writings of Skeptic Paul Kurtz):
â€œI suggest that rather than rejecting the eyewitness accounts of so many as unreliable, that he understand that his offhand subjective dismissal of anotherâ€™s experience is equally unreliable. What is missing is his attempt at understanding what is -- based upon the accounts. That they are laden with the complexity of personal observation does not mean the underlying phenomena are not actual and real. The confusion of the scientist in sorting out complex evidence does not itself render the phenomena unreal...it only means the scientist lacks the insight or tools to do the work. Only a fool of a scientist would dismiss the evidence and reports in front of him and substitute his own beliefs in their place.â€
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