In Defense of Anecdotes?
My reasons for believing that anecdotes prove nothing, yet are nonetheless important as a source of ideas for serious scientific study are:
1. Is these so-called anecdotes which lead many researcher to suspect that a serious, sustained, study of animal behavior might yield interesting results..
2. Only a handful of researchers have ever studied cognition and behavior of certain animals. Cognitive psychologists and ethologists prefer to work with pigeons, rats, monkeys, apes, and dolphins, rather than elephants and squirrels, for instance. Given the scarcity of scientific studies, one must, for the time being, take anecdotal accounts into consideration.
3. Human beings have been in close contact with elephants for thousands of years, observing them at work and play, in war and peace, in fields and streams, in savannas and forests, and they often left records of what they saw. Much of what they say about elephants may involve hyperbole and fairytales, but not all. If two different, reliable, critically-minded observers, for instance, independently describe the same behavior, then this behavior could very well be true.
4. The historical record shows that the danger often is not in accepting anecdotal accounts, but in rejecting them. Over and over again skeptics have been forced--after seeing with their own eyes--to admit the reality of what they formerly dismissed out of hand. Here I shall confine my narrative to elephants, but careful historical research would almost lead to the same conclusion with other animals. So, let me give just a few example of the danger of carrying a skeptical attitude towards elephant tales too far:
G. P. Sanderson (1912, p. 54 ) has been often told by people of Mysore (a state in India) that particular elephants, when chased away from fields with torches, let their chasers get within a few yards. The elephants then put their trunks into their mouth, and, withdrawing water, squirt the lights. "I need hardly say," Sanderson continues, "that the latter part of the statement is entirely imaginary." It is now, however, a documented fact that elephants can retrieve water with their trunk, and my Michigan friend, Dr. Hezy Shoshani, actually tells me that they most likely store the water in their pharyngeal pouch.
Another reliable observer, Armand Denis (1963, p. 94) says that any number of legends have grown up around wild elephants but that there was one above all which he had never believed until 1950 when he had positive proof of its truth—the legend of the wounded comrade. He disbelieved it until he saw, for himself, two younger elephants coming the rescue of an old bull that was shot, and trying to lead him away.
J. A. Gordon (1966) relates another true story which, until he actually saw it, appeared to him as a tall tall tale. An African ranger told him a remarkable story which he found difficult to believe at the time. Years later, Gordon came across a place where the elephants had scraped the sand away to a depth of about 18 inches. “Here I rummaged about, digging with my hands, to see whether they had found water. It was damp, but I doubted that they had found water, until I started to dig in a little hollow to one side, and touched something hard. I pulled and out came a long wide strip of bark, chewed loosely into a rough ball, an elephant has used this as a plug to block the hole beneath. I could not touch the bottom of the hole, even with my arm inserted to the shoulder, but with a stick I easily felt the bottom, and it came out dripping with water. Only a short distance away I saw the baobab with a long white gash, where the elephant had prised away the bark before chewing it into the shape of the rough sphere he had used to “cork” the hole. I now recalled the old ranger words: "After drinking, he doesn't always walk away. He will take a bunch of leaves and grass, or even a parched ball of elephant dung, and firmly close the entrance to his hole, concealing it finally with sand; otherwise the hyenas, warthogs, and other animals would try to get at his water, and in their unsuccessful struggle they would destroy his hole. "Now I believed."
5. Above all, anecdotal accounts need not be confirmed by accident alone, but can fruitfully spur serious research, if only they are taken seriously. Many episodes in the history of science show that one can be too credulous, to be sure, but that one can just as well be too “scientific” for one’s own good, letting go in the process of fabulous research opportunities. Here I would like to relate just one example of the latter risk, an example which, to the best of my knowledge, is not even known to workers in that particular area.
Consider the following, rather old, book excerpts. Upon reading them, most people—and most scientists—must have felt that they were some kind of hocus-pocus, half-baked anecdotal nonsense. What these people claimed to have seen just didn't make sense, ergo, it didn’t happen. But in a less rigid scientific atmosphere, a few curious, open-minded, scientists, might have been struck by the fact that three reliable observers, far in time and space, have independently suggested something akin to telepathy in elephants. Such exceptional scientists may then decide to pursue this line of research:
"One fact that we often noted about elephants was that there seemed to be a form of telepathy between them. We saw this sort of thing so many times that we wondered if they could use some kind of wireless system. The elephants have very stiff hairs in their ears, and in their nostrils. These might be used as antennae to catch vibrations of which a human being is quite unconscious. "On many occasions we saw an elephant, separated by several hundred yards from the rest of the herd, seemingly warn his comrades of a danger he and he alone had discovered. It was almost as though he sent some radio signal to the other elephants, for they would suddenly become alarmed, even though I am certain they could not have seen the lone elephant nor could they have discovered the danger for themselves." (Johnson, 1941, p. 283) "Intensely emotional scenes are often witnessed at the reunion of a pair of female elephants who regard one another with "schoolgirl friendship." These friendships are always between females and last a lifetime. The symptoms are most pronounced when both live rather solitary lives, seldom see other elephants and only meet one another at fairly long intervals. On such occasions, unless the two are tethered close, no one in the camp will get any sleep. Attachment may have formed in the wild, before they have been caught? A reliable story: Two such tea-garden elephants. On the night on which one of the pair died, the other, straining at her chain and calling, kept everyone awake. The two gardens are 4 miles apart and separated by a belt of forest. How she was aware of her mate’s plight is, short of telepathy, hard to explain." (Shebbeare. 1958, p. 98)
The only possible explanation is some sort of animal telepathy of which the scientists have so far very little understanding. . . . Many times I have watched the big herds of elephant in Central Africa eating peacefully over several miles of country and seen how one isolated elephant can become alarmed and instantly communicate this sense of danger to the whole herd. (Denis, 1963, p.145)
Now, had scientists taken seriously such independent anecdotes, the world would have not have to wait until 1980 to discover that elephants have an audibility curve similar to that of other mammals but one that was more sensitive to low frequencies and less sensitive to high frequencies than any other mammalian audiogram (Heffner & Heffner, 1982). Nor would it have to wait for the highly serendipitous 1986 discovery of infrasound communication in elephants (Payne, Langbauer, & Thomas 1986):
To sum up. No scientist will seriously argue that all anecdotes ought to be believed, or even taken seriously. It is, equally erroneous, however, to dismiss all such accounts as worthless, for they sometimes contain untold treasures. Carl Sagan captures this dilemma well:
"It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. Obviously those two modes of thought are in some tension. But if you are able to exercise only one of these modes, whichever one it is, you're in deep trouble."
Let me finish my defense of anecdotes as an inspiration for serious scientific research with a quotation from one of the most notable ethologists of the 20th century:
ientists scorn the anecdotal. ‘Oh, that’s merely anecdotal.’ What is anecdotal? It’s a careful description of an unusual event.” (Goodall, 1995).
I've always collected anecdotes, because I think they’re just terribly, terribly important—whereas most sc