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:

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.

 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:

 I've always collected anecdotes, because I think they’re just terribly, terribly important—whereas most scientists scorn the anecdotal.  ‘Oh, that’s merely anecdotal.’  What is anecdotal?  It’s a careful description of an unusual event.” (Goodall, 1995).

eleline.gif (2247 bytes)

Elephant Corner

Moti Nissani's Homepage