Regarding Anecdotes

We’re storytellers all. We describe what happened to us on our trip. We tell about that wreck we were involved in. We wax nostalgic over our vacations. And when it comes to religion, well, everybody has a story about that, too. The story validates one’s belief, gives what seems to be a reasonable argument for the existence of a god or the truth of one’s beliefs.

But how valid are the stories? I’m not speaking only of the time you prayed for grandma and she came home from the hospital when everyone thought she was going to die. There are as many verifying vignettes as there are Carter’s Little Liver Pills. 

I may have already mentioned the fellow who assured me that he knew there was a god because God told him what was going to be the next song on the radio. There are those who are in mortal danger from a gunman and they pray and are spared. There are stories of praying for rain and then being deluged with torrential rains after a drought. Surely, these tales must all lead one to believe that there is a gracious God and he cares for each and every person on Earth.

So, where’s the flaw in anecdotes? Why are they not convincing to everyone as they are to those who tell them? Is it that perhaps the person recalling the events has framed them in ways that are particularly important to themselves? If I said that I had a cat that could clearly speak eleven words of English, would someone else not have been able to make out those clear words? Am I hearing what I want to hear?

In the event of knowing what song would be on the radio next there are many explanations that are more reasonable than a magisterial God taking the time to use its powers for such trivial purposes. Those unfamiliar with radio may not know about cueing – the radio host listening to the beginning of the next song while playing another, with the studio mike not all the way off so that a listener can subliminally pick up the sound. And modern stations usually play the same songs in the same order for a period of weeks, and it’s common to “hear” the next song when we’ve heard the songs in the same order before.

Grandma got better when you prayed? The real question that should be asked is if she would have gotten better if you hadn’t. How would you be able to determine that? Which is more likely – that granny just got better or that magic was done because of your incantation? 

The biggest problem with anecdotes is the irregular workings of the mind. We don’t remember things accurately. Accident witnesses will say that the same car was variably red, blue, or gray. Those stories we tell each other always sound better if we arrange them to be more interesting. It’s not that we’re intentionally being dishonest, but rather that we just put our stories together this way. Over time, the stories seem to get even better. 

And of course, correlation does not imply causation. Did the person in the apartment upstairs stop making noise because you pounded on the ceiling with a broom handle, or because they were finished making noise? Did granny get better because you prayed or because of the care she was getting?

Rain is a bit difficult to predict. Does praying or doing a rain dance help? And when someone claims that they prayed and torrential rain resulted, do you suppose that they checked the weather forecast before they prayed or perhaps they left it out of the story because they didn’t want to diminish the effect that they thought prayer should have?

Anecdotes are affirming, but by their nature they must not be too closely examined. Sometimes an anecdote will be impossible to discount because no easy explanation can be made, but anecdotes depend upon what the listener does not know. Perhaps the teller does not know, either.


About herkblog

I'm an atheist. Although that's just a part of my life, I consider it to be important enough to me to be the main theme of this personal screed. I am self-employed in a service business and I live in Idaho, a place not known for its liberal qualities.
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2 Responses to Regarding Anecdotes

  1. Dan Green says:

    Great stuff here – you left a comment three weeks ago on one of my videos that had kind words and I wanted to find you to say thank you for them. They really were nice and now you prob have no idea what you said and because I’m a bit evil I’m not going to tell you ha. ha. ha 😀

  2. Dan Green says:

    Also wanted to share one of several anecdotes since I’m here. So way back whenever I was young and in school I was up late at night, like, very late beyond midnight for sure, and was walking along down the roads – why? Bleep me I just got up, went out and walked. Well I was talking out loud and suddenly was told to go back – by myself – but it wasn’t “me” or … it didn’t FEEL like me – this “presence” or “weight” felt like it was pushing down on me, warning me, turn around – go back. I said no to it, and the feeling went away, I went where I was going- an old school of mine. Well, on the way home a bully from my current school jumped out of some bushes and pushed me, I fell down – it was this half-hill thing hard to explain but the sidewalk was down there and a half-hill was where I was walking and anyway I broke my arm. I got help by knocking on doors and stuff – I did say to press charges but I don’t know if anything came of it, – it was summer break (we only had 1 week as we had year long school) I got a cast, we went camping as planned it was still fun, but less so due to the cast. Anyway- I remember thinking that GOD must have been trying to warn me of the danger, how could I possibly have known? I had no idea that the bully lived in that area, was awake etc- so it MUST be GOD… but – why go away just because I said “no” to it? Well Christian teaching somewhere I guess said something about you being able to say no to God and God leaving you to your own devices if you did that. But still – why now? Why not every time? Why not other times? Why only once? Why only me?

    Of course, as a skeptic now, I do not think it was GOD/God/(god/etc) it was my own brain – but how/why – no idea. Why that “feeling” no idea. Why did it feel like it was not “me” warning myself? Don’t know. I have a minor mystery that I think could be explained by either neuroscience and/or psychology if not today, then someday. And a mystery is okay with me. I’m fine with not knowing, although I’d love to know the answers, I’ve come to learn that, when you do not know what the answer is – you can not then know what the answer is. No appeal to ignorance allowed! That “What else could it be?!” question is answered by: Anything natural. Knock down all natural things we know about – it is still an unknown. We do not yet have an example of anything “unnatural” in the first place so we can’t even say it MIGHT be that. Guessing will just not do anymore.

    Anywhoo email me if you want more stories of mine you can post em on ur blog if you run out of things to post or something 😀 ❤

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