Beware the Avalanche of Anecdata

· | Comments

Beware the Avalanche of Anecdata

Most vegans have had the experience of a casual conversation veering off into a debate or argument. In fact I suspect most people have had this experience, but if you’re a vegan it happens all the time. You may be describing a pair of shoes you covet but can’t quite afford, or perhaps recounting an experience of a family dinner… and before you know it you are in philosophical territory, debating sentience or consciousness. Sometimes you find yourself on the potentially trickier ground of science and, without the studies to hand or enough signal on your ‘phone to find the evidence, you can either wade in with your limited knowledge or reach for a revealing anecdote to illustrate your point.

But wait! It’s a trap!

Exchanging anecdotes is a way to understand other people’s experiences. We want to know what happened not just because the facts interest us but because they give us a peek into another person’s perspective. Personal stories are a way to know each other better and create empathetic bonds, to compare experiences and to explore common or contested ground. Humans are driven by a desire to create and consume narrative* – that is, to tell stories, fact or fiction – but we also live in a world where facts are critically important for survival. Unfortunately for us, there is no quiz show gong sounded when conversation transitions from social bonding to logical debate. We inevitably slip into descriptive anecdotes when we should be relying on informative data.

‘Anecdata’ is a tongue-in-cheek term relating to the presentation of multiple points of anecdotal evidence as data to confirm or support an argument*. This can be useful – reading several anecdotal reviews of a few restaurants, for example, may be a useful way to inform your dining choice – but when we are advancing a rational argument, like veganism, we would be wise to banish anecdata to the margins of our discourse. Even if you have a thousand anecdotes about the benefits of veganism, it’s possible your non-vegan friend has a thousand and one – all equally compelling. If we accept anecdotes as admissible evidence for our case, it is intellectually dishonest to dismiss anecdotes contrary to our position, and evaluating the quality of these data is nearly impossible, so it’s likely to become one person’s word against another. This is the trap we must be wary of: if we live by the anecdata, we die by the anecdata.

Compelling Testimonials

The term anecdata entered my vocabulary when learning about the innumerable pseudo-scientific remedies and theories that seem so popular among my fellow vegans*. I may previously have found the unscientific claims of a homeopath plausible, and the accounts of several satisfied customers might have provided sufficient evidence for me to part with my money for a small bottle of water. Alternative therapies such as homeopathy rely heavily on anecdotal testimonials. Certainly they lack scientific evidence** for the efficacy of their treatments but they also know how compelling anecdotes are*.

As a skeptic, I often find myself frustrated by the ability of several heartwarming stories to convince people of, well, anything at all, despite the mountain of thorough studies and meta-analyses that indicate the opposite is probably true*. I may find it more frustrating than my scientifically literate friends. I understand the power of anecdote because, even though I know better, I am inclined to favour an interesting emotional account* over a heap of dry, inaccessible studies whose data (even if I could interpret it) is probably hidden behind a paywall anyway. I have to resist the compelling nature of anecdote and force my narrative-loving brain to trawl for real data when it would much rather be listening to stories. It’s always infuriating to witness other people succumbing to the same personal flaws you struggle with – because you already know that story.

Anecdata is not just compelling: it is hard, sometimes nigh impossible, to refute. Disregarding peoples’ opinions and experiences is offensive; explaining what really happened to them and how they are wrong about their own perceptions is patronising. When anecdotes replace arguments the debate becomes emotionally charged and personal. Suddenly, instead of making a case against a pseudoscientific theory, you find yourself making a case against your friend’s aunt who is the source of some piece of anecdatum… That rarely ends well.

Distrust of Science

Pseudoscience runs rife in the vegan community. I hope this doesn’t indicate that we are more susceptible to the lure of anecdotal evidence than the rest of the population, but I suspect it might. Unscientific, alternative medicines and anti-science theories such as the hysteria surrounding childhood vaccinations betray a misunderstanding or distrust of science. And perhaps we vegans have even more reason to distrust science* than the general public.

Those already interested in unconventional or alternative lifestyles may be more likely to be exposed to veganism (perhaps at their local health food shop, in their coven or at a mind-body–spirit fayre) and so there could be a higher proportion of woo-inclined people becoming vegan*. But once we have accepted the premises of veganism - that it is morally indefensible to use sentient beings to satisfy human needs or desires - we are even more likely to develop a mistrust of science. Science has, historically, promoted a ‘healthy diet’ featuring animal products*, even though contemporary studies indicate that a vegan diet is perfectly healthy for every stage of life*. This relatively recent scientific consensus has not trickled down to every family doctor or nutritionist*. GPs are, for most of us, the primary representatives of medical science, and if they advise us (incorrectly) that our ethical choice to abstain from animal exploitation will make us sick, it is understandable that we dismiss them and the ‘science’ they represent. If not via GPs, then maybe we interact with medical science via books or websites that offer lifestyle and diet advice – once again we find the majority are in favour of consuming animal products, and our mistrust deepens.

Some scientific advances have been achieved by unspeakably cruel behaviour. We benefit from the results of experiments conducted on Jewish people interred in concentration camps*, infants obviously unable to consent* and countless animals bred for experimental purposes. It is ridiculous to suggest that because we utilise the data uncovered by these experiments that the cruelties the subjects underwent were in any way just. And yet in the case of the non-human victims, many scientists and science enthusiasts claim just that*. This argument betrays such callous disregard for animal life and obvious speciesism* that the proponents and the science they represent become suspect, if not sinister to vegan eyes. If the scientist explained the principles of animal research* the vegan would probably still find the practice abhorrent, but may develop a less cartoonishly evil mental portrait of scientists. If we as vegans are lucky enough to talk to scientists who are interested in developing alternatives to animal models (either because of their own ethical objections to animal testing or because they are seeking a more efficient way to conduct their research*) we are more likely to be receptive to science as a whole. Scientists’ reliance on dismissive and logically suspect arguments like ‘well we wouldn’t have insulin if it wasn’t for animal testing’* force vegans to choose between their commitment to compassion and science – unsurprisingly many choose compassion.

Our community’s mistrust and sometimes outright hostility to science makes us even more likely to be convinced by anecdata. Real data is inaccessible and is published by an institution (‘science’) that we have reason to distrust. Anecdotes are our own experiences, our friends and families experiences and the experiences of people ‘just like us’ who provide testimonials for products being sold at vegan events. We are particularly vulnerable to exploitation by charlatans who want our money, and to ideas that lead to dangerous choices about our health. We should be promoting skepticism to protect ourselves and our community, but perhaps more importantly to protect the very foundation of the vegan argument.

The Trap

If we accept relying on anecdata as a valid way to convince us to spend money and make health decisions we will inevitably employ it to try to convince others to consider veganism. I see vegans everywhere advocating for veganism with anecdotes mainly reporting the miraculous health benefits of veganism*, or the horrifying health consequences of consuming animal products*. One of the most egregious examples I’ve noticed was PETA’s ‘Got Autism’ campaign* that was immediately and thoroughly debunked by reasonable vegans* who were as appalled as I was by the misinformation and the manipulative way PETA used it. When confronted about the campaign, PETA reeled out a whole bunch of anecdata to support their claim that milk causes autism*. The problem with relying on anecdata to support these sort of unfounded claims is that to critical thinkers it makes PETA, who to them might represent all vegans, look either ignorant or disingenuous*. To the less skeptical members of the public, the use of anecdata can convince them of untruths, and, more dangerously, it can promote the acceptance of anecdata as evidence leaving them susceptible to other misinformation – and create a climate where they themselves may use anecdata to advance their arguments.

The vegan community has embraced many different un-scientific ideas. We buy and sell plenty of products based on anecdata. We use anecdata to advance veganism and to guide our personal and consumer decisions. This is a problem for vegans that I’m very concerned about. I, like everyone, hate to see people conned or mislead, but it is an even bigger problem for veganism as a moral argument. If we accept anecdata as an appropriate standard for evidence in debating veganism, we are bound to accept it from those who argue against veganism… and they use it plenty.

I remember ten years or so ago, while travelling in India as a vegetarian, engaging in a debate with another traveller about whether you could be healthy as a vegetarian. Strangely, I’d never had this argument before. My fellow traveller was informing me and the other hippies gathered around the campfire that he had an uncle (or a brother, or a friend) who was vegetarian but had to go back to eating meat because he had a vitamin deficiency (he didn’t know which vitamin). I responded, hotly, that obviously you could be a healthy vegetarian because I was one! It turned out that the majority of those present were vegetarian in a country where an estimated three hundred and fifty million members of the population are also vegetarian*. I suppose I won that argument… but I shouldn’t have. There could well be more people in the world who have tried eating vegan for a while, felt unwell, attributed their discomfort to cutting out animal products, and then reintroduced animal products into their diet - than there are vegans*. If we count anecdotes as evidence, then I’ve no doubt we will lose any argument about the health of a vegan diet against someone who had committed themselves to collecting anecdata. I don’t think it is wise to waste our time in a war of attrition building up huge arsenals of anecdotes to weigh against the contrary anecdata.

If someone tells us they, or their friend (or their uncle, or their brother) tried eating a vegan diet and felt tired, lost too much weight, suffered a recurrence of a chronic health problem or any other misfortune, the response is obviously not to dismiss or belittle their health concerns. That said, it is inappropriate to allow this kind of anecdote to be admitted as evidence against the healthiness of a well balanced vegan diet. There are so many variables in that one person’s experience that it is impossible for us to say if their illness related to their diet at all and - if it did - whether it was the content of that diet rather than the veganess of it that didn’t suit them*. It is possible to respectfully remind someone that, while you sympathise with their situation, it is a unique personal experience which in this case runs contrary to a large body of scientific evidence. Perhaps reassuring them that bodies such as the National Health Service of the UK* and the American Dietetic Association* have concluded that a well balanced vegan diet is appropriate for all stages of life will make them reconsider their own situation. Or maybe not, but the important thing is to remind them, and anyone witnessing the conversation, that anecdotes may be worthy of further investigation – but they do not equate to evidence.

We need anecdotes. They are often entertaining and can be illustrative. They are part of the social glue that holds communities together and they allow us to empathise with each other. They are important in their own right, and do not need to be massaged into anecdata posing as evidence to have a place in landscape of our communication.

The science is on our side. Respected nutritional advisory bodies informed by the best and most recent studies agree that a well-balanced plant-based diet is a healthy one***. There is a growing trend in philosophical** and scientific* circles to recognize the choice to abstain from commissioning the suffering and death of other sentient beings as a rational one, if not a moral imperative*. If we were selling veganism, like charlatans sell their potions, maybe it would be tempting to rely on the tried and true techniques of submitting testimonials. ‘I felt lighter and healthier as soon as I put down the cheese.’ ‘I instantly felt a deep and beautiful connection to all other animals’*. But we don’t need to sell veganism. We are not promoting a lifestyle; we are revealing a truth and hoping people will change their lives in accordance with it.

Rebecca Fox is as likely to be found meditating and burning incense as she is in an academic library, and yet is a passionate atheist and a skeptic. Her artistic career is fuelled primarily by ingestion of soy lattes. Her artwork can be found at rebeccaonpaper.com. Her vegan and skeptical activism is fuelled by critical thinking and compassion.

« Previous article Next article »

We want your feedback

Reasonable Vegan is a constantly evolving community project. While we strive to research thoroughly and aspire to perfect correctness, we fully acknowledge that we make errors and omissions. The only way we're going to find out how wrong we are is if someone tells us. If you'd like to contact the author of this article or anyone involved in Reasonable Vegan directly, please email us at feedback@rvgn.org.