The Proper Place of Anecdotal Evidence

In the book, The Sense of Being Stared At, Rupert Sheldrake PhD (he received his PhD in biochemistry at Cambridge University in England) discusses his ongoing research into the powers of the mind (things like telepathy, precognition, and other psychic phenomena) which he terms the seventh sense. HeĀ  addresses the significance and use of anecdotal evidence in his research:

The first and most fundamental kind of evidence for the seventh sense is personal experience. And there are many such experiences. Most people have sometimes felt they were being stared at from behind or thought about someone who then telephoned. Yet all of these billions of personal experiences of seemingly unexplained phenomena are conventionally dismissed within institutional science as “anecdotal.” (page 5)

He goes on to say,

To brush aside what people have actually experienced is not to be scientific, but unscientific. Science is founded on the empirical method; that is to say, on experience and observation. Experiences and observations are the starting point for science, and it is unscientific to disregard or exclude them. (page 5)

In medicine, anecdotal evidence is extremely important. Doctors observe symptoms, and they observe the results of their interventions. When doctors observe something particularly striking, they may write a case history, which can be published in a journal. Such published articles can be the starting point for studies or other ways of confirming the observations of the reporting doctor.

What is the proper place of anecdotal evidence in research? This is a significant question. It would clearly be patently unscientific to dismiss anecdotal evidence. Here is what Rupert Sheldrake says about his use of anecdotal evidence.

In my own research I have used three complementary approaches. First of all, I have investigated the natural history of unusual perceptiveness in people and in animals. I have appealed for information through radio, television, magazines, and newspapers in Europe, Australia, South Africa and North America, asking people about their own experiences, and also about observations of pets and wild animals suggesting the existence of unexplained sensitivities. My associates and I ave also interviewed hundreds of people whose professions provide opportunities to observe the seventh sense in action, including soldiers, fighter pilots, martial-arts practitioners, psychotherapists, security officers, private detectives, criminals, photographers, hunters, horse riders, animal trainers, and pet owners.

It is important to recognize that this method of gathering information is little different from large scale behavioral studies in which people respond to questionnaires about their habits. Such studies are used to make sweeping generalizations and conclusions about the effects of exercise, smoking, eating meat, etc. So after he has gathered this information, what has been done?

…we have built up a computerized database of more than 5,000 case histories of apparently unexplained perceptiveness by people and by nonhuman animals. These case histories are classified into more than 100 categories. When many people’s accounts point independently to consistent and repeatable patterns, anecdotes are transformed into natural history. At the very least, this is a natural history of what people believe about their own perceptiveness and that of animals.

This is then the jumping off point for Rupert Sheldrake’s research. He has devised and carried out a number of experiments to find the most plausible explanation for these personal experiences of telepathy, precognition, and other psychic phenomena. In another blog post, I will discuss his findings.

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