Christianity and the use of Anecdotal Evidence
I just finished reading a terrific book called “The Ghost Map,” a nonfiction account of the 1854 cholera epidemic in London. The story follows a scientist and a clergyman whose investigations pinpointed the source of the outbreak that killed hundreds of people within a week. Their work saved untold thousands of lives: Due to them, London never again suffered a cholera epidemic.
Before Dr. John Snow and Rev. Henry Whitehead proved that cholera is a water-borne illness, there were myriad theories about how it was transmitted and cured. The patent-medicine industry spent huge amounts on advertising all sorts of quack “remedies,” writes author Steven Johnson:
“Ordinary people had long cultivated their folk remedies and home-spun diagnoses, but until newspapers came along, they didn’t have a forum beyond word of mouth to share their discoveries. At the same time, the medical division of labor that we now largely take for granted – researchers analyze diseases and potential cures, doctors prescribe those cures based on their best assessment of the research – had only reached an embryonic state in the Victorian age. … For the most part, this meant that the newspapers of the day were filled with sometimes comic, and almost always useless, promises of easy cures for diseases that proved to be far more intractable than the quacks suggested.” pg. 46
Some of the cures advertised for cholera included castor oil, disinfectant sprays, opium, ether, laudanum, linseed oil, hot compresses, heroin, leeches, laxatives and brandy, Johnson says. What no one ever proposed is the cure that actually works: hydration.
What was going on here? Anecdotal evidence. A particular cure would be administered and – lo and behold – the patient would recover! Someone would get a patent on the treatment and hawk it as a “miracle drug.” What people didn’t realize is that anecdotal evidence is next to useless: People recover spontaneously due to circumstances that have nothing to do with the “miracle drug.” Modern science teaches that valid data must be collected through rigorously controlled methodology and in large enough numbers to discount randomness and coincidence.
I often see religious people point to anecdotal evidence to “prove” the validity of their belief system. I understand the impulse: I grew up practically worshiping personal testimonies. “Jesus rescued me from sin,” “My life was terrible until I found the Lord,” “God healed me after I prayed.” Of course these experiences are meaningful for those who tell them. But are they really valid “evidence” for others to accept a particular truth?
My thinking on this changed radically around 2002, when I realized that all religious people recount personal experiences, mystical healings and life-changing “encounters with the divine.” My church taught me that the personal spiritual experiences of Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, Jews, etc. were Satanic deceptions designed to trick them into believing wrong doctrine. But as my blinders came off, I contemplated: If I considered pro-Christian anecdotal evidence persuasive, how could I discount the anecdotal evidence of other groups?
My spiritual experiences couldn’t be verified by anyone other than me, yet I expected others to take them on face value. How could I be so arrogant as to discount the spiritual experiences of people from other religious traditions? In the end, I couldn’t. That left me with two choices: Either everyone’s sincerely believed, dearly held spiritual experiences are equally valid, or none of them are. This realization was the beginning of the end of my religious belief.
Today, anecdotal evidence doesn’t persuade me of the truth, just as it didn’t persuade Snow and Whitehead when they investigated the 1854 cholera epidemic. I’m glad to be in such distinguished company.