Anecdotal science

The expression ”anecdotal science” may well be a contradiction, as an anecdote can be far from scientific. When we are discussing bees, varroa, varroa resistance, bees behavior and similar things it may be a good thing to think about how we argue, the quality of evidences for different things, how we draw conclusions and what truth is. This is an extensive area for discussion. But I will here restrict myself to discuss little about the difference between anecdotes and science.

If someone has another opoinion than you he may try to dismiss what you say by calling it an anecdote. By that he gives the impression that reports can be either anecdotal or scientific, as if there are just two distinct divisions of accounts, either it is anecdotal and thus not of any real value when drawing correct conclusions. Or it’s scientific and a good help in knowing the truth.

Reality isn’t that simple. There aren’t just two different options when characterizing an account, an anecdotal or a scientific report.

Anecdote

An anecdote is a brief, revealing account of an individual person or an incident. It is used to illustrate a point the author want to make.

Evidence

Evidence is anything presented in support of an assertion. The strongest type of evidence is that which provides direct proof of the truth of an assertion.

Scientific evidence

Scientific evidence consists of observations and experimental results that serve to support, refute, or modify a scientific hyphothesis or theory, proposed explanations for a phenomenon.

Prediction and falsifiability

The best hypotheses lead to predictions that can be tested. The strongest tests of hypotheses come from carefully controlled and replicated experiments that gather empirical data. A scientific hypothesis must be falsifiable, implying that it is possible to identify a possible outcome of an experiment that conflicts with predictions deduced from the hypothesis; otherwise, the hypothesis cannot be meaningfully tested.

Reproducibility

Reproducibility is one of the main principles in science. It is the ability of an entire experiment or study to be dublicted, either by the same researcher or by someone else working independently.

Statistics

Often today when you are producing papers of tests, statistics play an important role when presenting results. If you get what is called a statistical significance you are said to have a result that can be trusted when used to draw conclusions. It is a difficult field and discussed in different ways.

The value of a report

There’s not just two options, anecdote and scientific report. There’s a whole range of different characteristics of a report qualifying it to be placed somewhere in between the two ”extremes”. Even these two can be difficult to clearly define.

Example

An anecdote far away from being scientific could be what often is called a testimony, a story of an event, and in this case a conclusion: ”I have a bee colony that is very aggressive. It produced double the amount of honey compared to my other colony. Aggressive colonies are more productive than calm colonies.”

Then you have a scientist that got inspired by this anecdote and formed a hypothesis of the last sentence in the anecdote above: ”Aggressive colonies are more productive than non-aggressive colonies.”

The first important issue is to define ”aggressive”. But let’s say he used a definition that everyone can recognize to be true. The next problem is to decide how many colonies to be used in the test, and the heritage of the queens in the colonies (should they be sisters for example). About half of the colonies should be aggressive and the rest non-aggressive. The colonies should be of the same strength (from when) and have the same health statues. The worker bees should be very much dominated by the queens offspring (when should the queen have been introduced).

These things I mention here are taken in consideration to avoid error sourcesto be able get a correct result. There are surely more error sources to avoid.

In the ideal situation there will be enough obtained data to produce a statistical result that falsify or supports the hypothesis. If it supports the hypothesis you can draw the conclusion that according to the knowledge we have today the most probable conclusion that comes closest to truth is that the hypothesis is true. But the result does not exclude the possibility that future result will anyway falsify the hypothesis. New knowledge may enlighten how to better design a test and avoid an error source not previously known, for example. That’s science. It always leave open for new knowledge to change the conclusions made today, in a minor or major way.

If no statistical significance has been obtained the results may anyway be pointing in a certain direction and a conclusion may be that the hypothesis is correct but more research is needed, probably with better designed tests.

4 thoughts on “Anecdotal science

  1. >”Those who are accustomed to judge by feeling do not understand the process of reasoning, for they would understand at first sight and are not used to seek for principles. And others, on the contrary, who are accustomed to reason from principles, do not at all understand matters of feeling, seeking principles and being unable to see at a glance.”–Blaise Pascal<

    Part of this is also the ability to see intuitively the whole picture instead of seeing each individual piece as if it stands alone. (quoted out of Michael Bushs webpages)

    Personally I believe results are only valuable if reached in an independent way without financial support from industry or government.
    Sibylle

    • Good quote! We do well in listening and considering each other. And as you say there may be different causes why things are said. Also, when you know how to avoid error sources, you are able to design tests to avoid them of being able to show any significant results…

  2. To avoid error sources….that`s hard to do starting something.
    People mostly believe the truth is theirs :-).
    But everyone and everything has his own truth. If the source is a charismatic person or the research seems to be solid it´s hard even to be a sceptic.

    Tests have to be repeated, experience is needed, results and circumstances are to be compared….but how often results are disproved later?

    No matter. Open minds and courage, good observations, shared experience and, finally statistics together will lead to some results which are reliable.

    There are practical and scientific orientated persons.
    The best is if this works together.

    Me I am more the practical one, so I just use sources to do a little try and error to find out what happens in my own situation.
    Kind of egoistical, isn`t it? Well I like to share my experience, so maybe someone is able to use it, too. Be welcome.
    Sibylle

  3. Good discussion, to give 2 practical examples of Sybilles point to be sceptical about industry and government and Eriks last statement how you can fake scientific studies:
    Syngenta has done a study to test the effect of insectizides on honey bees. The first big issue was they put the control colonies 2km away from the “test colonies” that stand directly besides a rape seed field sprayed with that insectizide….:-):-):-).
    The second issue was they used bizarre statistical methods to prove the effect of insectizides on bees was not measurable. The comment about that statistical proof from a profesor in Zürich was, if a bachelor student would have done a similar approach in his thesis, he would throw him out of his office. If anyone wants a link for that report (shown in swiss TV in german language) let me know.

    Besides, the german BfR who was responsible for the reapproval for Glyphosate in the EU this year made their conlusions based on papers assessing the effect of glyphosate selected by the GTF (glyphosate task force) which consits of members of the herbicide producing industry itself (Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer etc.) :-), :-). In the selection made by the industry guys all critical papers were excluded, which by the way motivated the WHO to claim the glyhosate as probably cancerogenic :-):-):-).
    Again a very creative statistical method has to be used to claim by the BfR that glyphosate is not dangerous at all.
    Recently, I read in the newspaper, that the BfR even made some experiments to assess the effects of glyphosate on rabbits. The incuabtion times of the glyphosate have been extremely short (of course only to save costs, because they use tax money….:-):-). You can guess about the result. No effect of glyphosate can be detected.
    (BTW if you look on the early data about glyphosate from Monsanto – published by 2 american scientists – there have been evidence that glyphosate is cancerogenic by Monsanto in it’s initial trial itself. That caused the american authority to judge the pesticide as cancerogenic class C. However, later on Monsanto managed by introducing supplemental data which had an unusal high control cancerogenic level, to “correct” the initial estimation to cancerogenic class D. Furthermore the authors of the paper investigated the increasing pesticide use by agriculture with some cancers and found scary high dose correlation. But this is of course anecdotal science :-):-):-)
    Or even better this is a conspiracy theory!!!

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