The Anecdotal Fallacy
As a tribute to my years spent as Editor of Advance Magazine, I thought I’d publish a column of “OT Phenomena” Success Stories. See what you think of these:
“I went from a single mom at home trying to work part time as self employed without much success, to having a part time job, and within a few short weeks I had gained a second part time job. I was over the moon. I then decided one day in a session…that I really wanted a full time job. To my surprise the very next day my manager at the dental surgery I worked in offered me a full time job…This stuff really does work. I live each and every day positively happy.”
“I was at a house rebuilding a porch and I lost my balance and fell backwards and landed on a concrete step on my left arm. The bone in my arm immediately snapped completely in half, right above my elbow. My elbow twisted and was pointing towards my stomach and the back of my hand hit me in the face. My arm was completely broken and mangled, and I screamed out for my employee to call 911. …When I got to the hospital…I decided to try to heal my arm. A doctor came in shortly and took x-rays. Later he came back and said they needed to do a CAT scan. They did that and I waited for a couple more hours before they came back in again looking kind of perplexed and they told me that my arm was not broken. I exclaimed ‘What? I saw the bone break and it was bulging out of the back of my arm!’ The doctor leaned over me and whispered to me: ‘We don’t know what happened, but your bone is not broken anymore.'”
“I was so energized, that I could not stop myself from working on creative projects because I was so inspired… It’s as though all of my barriers have come down and I’m filled with this new enthusiasm and confidence to achieve my full potential…I was able to increase my business sales and double my income in less than 8 months! … I had no idea that I would experience such tremendous results so quickly. I was zapped into action and I haven’t stopped since!”
“I am a lady truck driver and I deal with bad motorists 10 to 15 hours every day. Anyway, I have this ability to tell if another driver is going to pull out in front of me or make some other kind of wild maneuver. Many times I have started braking and my husband (who is my team partner on the truck) has asked me why I was slowing down–only to stop mid-sentence because a car suddenly swerved in front of us.”
“Several months ago the remote to the television went missing…My mother taught me that when something is lost, the best way to find it is START CLEANING! So shortly after their disappearance, I scheduled a full day to clean the living room….It took me 12 hours to clean the place, and by the end of it, I was convinced the dog had buried the remote in the back yard. There is nowhere else it could have possibly disappeared to. …Today I was sitting on the couch reading, I set my book down to rest my eyes a few minutes…when POOF it hit me, there must be a small crevice in the frame of the couch that runs the length of the couch. What’s more, I knew exactly where the remote was- I knew it was underneath where I was sitting. I stuck my hand in and immediately felt it. Amazing!”
“When I retired as a schoolteacher and moved to Florida, I decided I didn’t want to sit at home all day and watch TV, so I hired myself out as a part time nanny and babysitter…As I walked up the steps of a house to introduce myself to a new family, I could feel my sensations becoming more acute.… As I approached the front door, I had the strangest feeling I knew this house. Yet, I was new to the area… As [the wife] gave me a tour of the house, I started telling her in advance what each room looked like. We were both amazed when I described not only the layout of the master bedroom, but the individual pieces of furniture as well as the various things she had strewn around the room. Then I realized…I was simply picking up bits of information from her mind.”
Impressive, aren’t they? As Advance Editor, I would have been proud to publish these. And I’m sure that there are those who would say that these stories prove that Scientology works.
The only problem? They’re not from Scientology. They are from many different sources – The Secret website, an “Academy of Remote Viewing” site, a “Soul Success Coach” blog, a “female intuition” website, a “psychic consultant” website, and an astrology website. In about a half an hour on Google, I found these and hundreds upon hundreds more.
Do these stories “prove” that these subjects work? No of course not. What do they tell us?
1. People have strange, unexplained experiences and like to write about them.
2. They tend to attribute them to whatever they are into: hypnotherapy, Christian prayer, astrology, channeling, whatever, and
3. The purveyors of those subjects or beliefs love to carefully select these out and display them as “proof” that their particular subject “works.”
Now, this isn’t to say that hypnotherapy, astrology, The Secret, magic healing crystals and so forth don’t work. But stories like this don’t prove it.
Let’s look at something called the anecdotal fallacy, sometimes referred to as the “person who” fallacy, as in “I know a person who…” or “I heard of a case where…”
We’ve all heard examples: “Smoking doesn’t cause cancer! My grandfather chain-smoked all his life and lived to be 100.” The person generalizes from a single anecdote. This is called hasty generalization or generalization from the particular. “My aunt started eating blueberries and her arthritis went away. See? Blueberries cure arthritis.”
Confirmation bias also enters in. This is the tendency for people to favor information that confirms their preconceptions or beliefs. People gather evidence and recall information from memory selectively, and interpret it in a way that conforms to their established beliefs. Let’s say a person believes that they can perceive available parking places from miles away. One day they are driving downtown and find a parking place right in front of their destination. This proves that they have this ability. Never mind the dozens of times they didn’t find a parking place, this is the story they will remember and retell (and get published in Advance Magazine).
Anecdotal evidence usually lacks documentation. Such stories can get exaggerated (in the interest of telling a good story), and are often passed from person to person, sometimes embellished as they go. “Urban myths” are an example of this.
Anecdotal evidence is often given more importance than is warranted, due to something called the availability heuristic, a phenomenon whereby people overestimate the frequency of a phenomenon in a group based on how easily they can think of an example. “OT stories” are memorable and startling and so come easily to mind. So people tend to generalize: “All OTs can do that.” Memorable anecdotes are often about the exception, not the rule. Examples where the person couldn’t do that tend to be forgotten.
And of course the companies or movements using these stories cherry pick the best ones to showcase as “the wins everyone is getting.”
Anecdotes, “success stories,” testimonials, can be fun to read. They can be entertaining. They can sell things. But using them to prove something can lead to logical absurdities:
“I know a Scientologist who is a millionaire. Therefore Scientology creates millionaires.”
“I know an OT who mysteriously recovered from cancer. Therefore, OTs can cure cancer. “
“I heard of an OT in the 1970s who could leave his body at will. Therefore OTs can leave their bodies at will.”
“I thought about my grandmother and a few minutes later she called. That proves telepathy is a fact.”
“I heard of a boy on the news who remembered a past life, Therefore that proves LRH was right and Scientology can help you recover your past lives.”
I could give more examples, but I think you get the idea.