The Dullest Tool in the Belt of a Pseudoscientific Agenda
Personal health anecdotes confer low-quality evidence.
Posted Mar 27, 2020
Scientists know that the plural of anecdote is not data; no matter how many testimonials you accumulate, they can’t ever prove that the treatment works. —Harriet Hall, M.D.
The testimonial in the form of a personal health anecdote is the dullest tool in the belt of a pseudoscientific agenda. I do not say that lightly.
Indeed, the scientific method works via an interplay between both bottom-up, data-driven processes, and top-down, theoretical applications. With respect to the former, this means that personal health anecdotes are often a good starting point to generate research into the validity of health claims and their mechanisms of change.
For example, if you proclaim: “I received energy healing and happen to feel better afterward, therefore it works.” That’s fantastic. But if your claim is to be used as evidence to support the treatment recommendations of other people, then we have a problem. The problem is that your claim needs to be subjected to incisive scientific scrutiny before it can be ethically recommended by regulated health care providers.
Evidence-based treatment providers are aware that there exists a hierarchy of scientific evidence. The idea that personal health anecdotes confer low-quality evidence is well established.
Fortunately, health care disciplines that are philosophically predicated on evidence-based medicine (EBM) can rely on the scientific method as an inherently self-criticizing machine to aid patient care. EBM allows providers to make sense of personal health anecdotes by situating them in the context of the broader scientific literature, clinical expertise, and patient preferences.
Unfortunately, disciplines that are more likely to adopt pseudoscientific approaches to evidence tend to lack self-criticism and self-correction. Instead, they exploit the testimonial by cherry-picking the hits and ignoring the misses. This is an unethical endeavor because the hits can be dangerous.
Pseudoscientific proponents hijack and elevate the anecdote as a tool to the detriment of patients and at the neglect of the scientific evidence base. This particular use of the tool renders it dull because it is frequently used to the point of being non-specific—but it nevertheless works as a blunt-force object, as people are wired to believe stories, especially when we're beaten over the head with them.