The Anecdotal Fallacy

by Brian 29. August 2015 22:58

Personal bias can hinder our ability to reason through social, political and religious issues. Though the dishonest and unreflective always seem to find a happy union, it is a challenge for the honest man to divorce his feelings from the analysis of certain controversial matters. I recently read a story of police abuse, and I was moved by what happened to the couple in the story. The testimony began with an important disclaimer: “What you are about to read is not a philosophical argument. It’s personal testimony.”  Why mention this? The answer is obvious: A personal statement is not an argument per se, yet in some cases; individual testimonies and anecdotal accounts often become the basis of implicit arguments. This false inference happens not only with prickly political subjects but in apologetics and philosophical discourse. How we deal with personal testimony and anecdotal experience versus cold facts is important. When it comes to sympathy, it should not be so lacking we ignore the former nor so generous we discount the latter.

At eighteen I worked at a fast-food restaurant as a backup manager. I closed the store late one night and was heading home on my motorcycle. It was freezing out, and I was still in my uniform and did not have a jacket. I lived only a few minutes away so I figured I could get home quick and warm up. There was no one on the road that night as I pulled out of the parking lot and rolled through a stop sign. A police patrol officer stopped me. A young white guy got out of his car and collected my driver’s license and registration.  I was fully compliant and respectful. The officer noted how cold I was with a grin on his face as he sat in his warm car. About ten minutes went by, and he finally got out to issue me a ticket. By this point, I was shaking noticeably.  He then told me I could go, but then stopped me at the last moment. He returned to his vehicle to write a protracted second ticket for a burned out light over my license plate. I finally made it home without hypothermia, but this heartless officer abused his power. That night for me began a long and negative opinion of law enforcement. I drew a compelling inference from this one experience: Cops were power-hungry jerks. Thirty years and many positive experiences later helped me to shed this sophomoric view.

Recent events have conjured disturbing examples of this sort fallacious reasoning. I’m not referring to activists who benefit from the declining relationship between law enforcement and the citizens they protect. Nor am I thinking of the race-baiting profiteers who want to see this as a disproportionately white on black issue. I am not even referring to the ignorant who post unhelpful memes of angry white officers juxtaposed with seemingly innocent black children. Rather it is otherwise reasonable people who jump on the bandwagon after reading a testimonial that caught my attention. As I said, I read the testimony, and it was powerful. But should sympathy deter us from the most basic questions? Is it the case law enforcement is abusing their power more today than ever?  Is this abuse systemic and racially-motivated? The honest answer is that we do not know based solely on what the media tells us or what personal testimonies convey. To claim otherwise would be to commit the anecdotal fallacy.

Here is what we do know: We have a few cases where blacks are killed during interaction with law enforcement. In some of these, there is police abuse. In others, the actions taken by law enforcement are justified. We have a handful of personal statements since the raising of awareness. We have a few high-profile cases over the past year. Time magazine lists 14 since Zimmerman shot Trevon Martin in 2012. The justice department, over a six-year period, recorded about 4,800 arrest-related deaths out of a whopping 98 million arrests (less than 0.005%). Of the 800 incidents per year, how many are the result of what a fair interpretation of the law would deem an abuse of power? And of those, how many were racially motivated? We don’t know! Nor do we know if this is a worsening or improving situation. What is the baseline? What if there is adequate punishment for abuses of power? How do we know the problem is worse for law enforcement than it is for other professions where the citizen’s life is on the line? In other words, is this a systemic problem with human nature or is it one of a particular occupation? At over 200K per year deaths from medical malpractice; are doctors killing blacks disproportionately by giving them secondary care? Are firefighters responding to fires in black homes slower than whites? Do military leaders send blacks into more dangerous scenarios than whites due to racial bias? The bottom line is we do not know if abuse of power in the US, racially motivated or not, has been worsening, getting better or staying the same. Based on my own experience and those that I’ve spoken with, the level of racial hatred has become far better over the years. But of course to make an argument solely on this evidence would be to commit the very same anecdotal fallacy.

I am using this recent issue as an example of how highly-charged matters are susceptible to an improper inference from personal testimony and anecdotal evidence. Of course, there are plenty of other scenarios one could point to including ones falling into evangelism and apologetics. A neighbor says: “I had a bad experience in church once” and therefore “all Christians are judgmental.” Or a coworker says, “I heard this preacher try to make a mockery of science” therefore “faith and science will never reconcile.” Even though these arguments are obviously weak and commit the anecdotal fallacy; this does not mean we jump right to pointing out their error. We ought to first listen with a sympathetic ear and have an honest conversation, and be being willing to consider possibilities suggested by their poor argument. Perhaps they are on to something, or maybe not. Level-headed discourse with a desire to listen to others combined with a fair and objective inclusion of the facts is more likely to develop agreement and understanding. All of this said, however, posting irrational innuendos and memes on Facebook merely creates an environment where the anecdotal fallacy flourishes.


Nigh on Science

by Brian 1. October 2014 11:47

I understand Bill Nye (The Science Guy) spoke in Tallahassee the other day and I unfortunately didn't get to see him.[i] I think I would have enjoyed the show as he is an entertaining spokesperson for science. Supposedly during his presentation he told the audience creationism is an obstacle to scientific innovation. The example he gave had creationists shrugging-off a possible asteroid impact while scientists diligently solve the problem. I guess destruction-by-asteroid didn’t fit the eschatology of his hypothetical creationists. I couldn’t verify any of this online but I did find these words from Nye:

"If we raise a generation of students who don't believe in the process of science, who think everything that we've come to know about nature and the universe can be dismissed by a few sentences translated into English from some ancient text, you're not going to continue to innovate,"[ii]

Now if all Nye is saying is scientific innovation is hindered when we don’t believe in the process of science (whatever that means) then of course he hasn’t said anything enlightening. But when we include his statement about ancient texts we see an implication. Nye is using rhetoric to conflate religion and science in such a way as to suggest the former is a cause for dismissal of the later.  In other words, religion leads to a trivialization of science. Nye is not the only contemporary pop-scientist to make such allegations. Neil deGrasse of the new Cosmos series has tried this.[iii] Lawrence Krauss has also joined in.[iv] Not everyone in the media is so antagonistic. Dr. Michio Kaku said: “They [science and religion] can be in harmony, but only if rational people on both sides engage in honest debate.” I agree, but Nye’s view seems to be more popular than Kaku’s. In this post I will try to address Nye’s perspective.[v]

Christians devalue science, its processes and deliverances…

In other words: Christians are more likely to be unappreciative of science, how it works, what it tangibly produces and what it has to say about reality. Now this seems plainly false to me. There is no evidence to show the Christian worldview necessitates a devaluation of science or precludes the acceptance of good scientific methodologies. Christianity does not make one forget the fact science has been fruitful. And, as a Christian I appreciate science. A friend of mine suggested we might be in the minority. Perhaps, but I have not often encountered an anti-science attitude within my Christian circles. No doubt some churches are perpetuating an anti-intellectual, anti-science mindset. But a lot of churches and Christian schools are drifting away from Scopes-era fundamentalism. It would be difficult to defend the thesis Christian apologetics over the last 30 years hasn’t seen significant growth. Apologetics employs history, philosophy and science. More and more Christians are equipping themselves with the knowledge and skills necessary to articulate their position on a variety of topics where science has input. This doesn’t seem like something Christians would engage in if they placed little value on science.

Christians use their religion as an excuse to stop inquiry or to continue down paths science has deemed unproductive…

In other words: Science is progressing, revealing more and more about reality. But Christians get in the way, denying or ignoring the proclamations of science. Christians want to explore contrary paths or just dig in and do nothing. Science says the world is 4.54 billion years old. Pastors teach it is only a few thousand years old. Science says all the broad strokes of evolutionary theory are settled. Creationists waste time on intelligent design. To Nye, when Christians profess things contrary to the current scientific consensus, scientific progress and innovation are hindered. To be fair, people on both sides of this debate tend to be divisive and simplistic. Things are often so polarized; what could be a fruitful discussion ends up as a mere fight between religion and science.  But if we are going to, as Dr. Kaku said, engage in honest debate, perhaps Nye should consider these facts:

  • It was the Christian worldview that furnished a conceptual framework for the birth of science.[vi] Does Nye recognize many of the greatest scientists from history were Christians?
  • There are plenty of productive, innovative and inquisitive scientists with a Christian worldview today. Would Nye agree with this?
  • Most people, with or without religious faith, do not significantly contribute to scientific innovation. Would Nye acknowledge there are far more relevant factors as to why people are not inquisitive, innovative or scientifically productive?
  • There are numerous lifestyles and worldviews causing and perpetuating a lack of initiative and inquisitiveness. Nihilism, hedonism, narcissism, laziness, and addictions all seem contrary to innovative science. Where is Nye on these more relevant hindrances?
  • One atheist I know spends most of his time playing video games. Would Nye claim this guy is hindering scientific inquiry and innovation?
  • Very few areas of science overlap the metaphysical views shaped by our faith. The primary fields of science where most conflicts arise are evolutionary biology, climatology, and geology. But the full scope of science is much larger than these. Can Nye tell us how Christians hinder innovation in particle physics, plastics or integrated circuit design?
  • Many who agree with Nye are Darwinists and view the entire eclectic theory of evolution as a comprehensive and mostly settled paradigm. To them, anyone who wants to consider an alternative is hindering innovation by wasting time and effort. But even a first-year philosophy of science student knows irrevocable-truth is not a deliverance of science. Theories are confirmed or disconfirmed. But this requires challenging them. Does Nye believe Darwinian theories are beyond questioning and testing?
  • Nye would say design-causation is not a valid consideration for science. Clearly, this is false as it would negate all of the activities and accomplishments of many scientists in fields like forensics and archaeology. Is Nye prepared to tell the forensic scientist his inference to a design-cause is not based on real science?
  • The kind of metaphysics Nye likely holds leads to a rigid view of unguided evolutionary processes. It’s the only game in town for the materialist. Many Christians are open to a spectrum of guided (design) and unguided (material) processes. Can Nye tell us how this more flexible metaphysical view is more of a hindrance to scientific inquiry than the more rigid bias of the materialist?
  • Resisting one theoretical avenue and pursuing others based on one’s metaphysical bias is part and parcel of the history of science. When the theory of an expanding universe began to take hold during the mid-20th century, scientists who held a materialist-metaphysic rejected the new science precisely because it smacks of creationism. Would Nye accuse them of being a hindrance to scientific inquiry and progress? Or were they entitled to challenge the expanding universe theories regardless of their underlying motives?

I'm sure the Science Guy is a bright one, but his comments are polemical and nigh-science. It wasn’t long ago Stephen J Gould claimed science and religion had nothing to say to one another, even if authoritative in their respective domains. His principle of NOMA (Non-overlapping Magisteria) has since been rejected by many pop-scientists. Instead, those like Nye, Dawkins and Hawking claim their field, science, is the only authority. Hawking in his recent book The Grand Design wrote:

“What is the nature of Reality? Where did all of this come from? Did the Universe need a creator? … Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.”

So philosophy is dead. Theology is dead. Only science remains. So what Nye and others are really trying to do is promote scientism – the view science is the only source of knowledge. Ironically, the question of whether or not scientism ought to be accepted cannot be settled by science. It is a philosophical question, not a scientific one. Though the walls of self-refutation are closing in here, I won’t go there today. In conclusion; science, philosophy, and theology must have a consonant relationship with one another as they try to explain the same reality from different viewpoints. Gould’s NOMA goes too far and stifles the conversation. But the scientism of pop-science is untenable and perpetuates hostility. Good theology, good philosophy, and good science will harmonize if experts in their respective domains are allowed to collaborate without being demonized. As a popular spokesperson for science, Nye can either help facilitate this or continue to drive the wedge.  


[i] AN EVENING WITH BILL NYE, Tuesday, September 16, 2014 @ 6:00 pm – 10:00 pm, Location: Ruby Diamond Concert Hall, Tallahassee, FL

[iii] “revelation replaced investigation”

[v] Nye didn’t specifically call out Christianity in the online statement but the criticisms from pop-science often interchange Christianity, creationism, faith, religion, etc.  Given Nye said specifically “translated into English,” he was likely referring to Christianity. Krauss has specifically called out Christianity in his criticisms. De Grasse has called out those who believe in creation.

Thoughts on Pot

by Brian 14. April 2014 04:22

Apologetics often concerns itself with the removal of mental barriers to the Gospel. With that in mind, perhaps it is high time we clear the air regarding pot. I prefer to leave the matter of legality to others and focus rather on its perniciousness. I realize any rebuke leading to restraint is clearly out of fashion these days, nevertheless, credible people ought to take a stand on this issue. Who are the credible you ask? Most will agree criticism from those who have never smoked the drug are about as compelling as testimony from those whose minds are clouded by its regular use. And we are often incredulous of the experts with their inconclusive studies worded in ways seemingly meant to lessen our concern. Yet, there are those who have experience with the drug and they ought to honestly articulate the pitfalls to those who are uninformed. Let’s face the facts; it is likely marijuana will be generally available in the US in ways far more ubiquitous than black-market access. It’s coming to a convenience store near you. So what are we to make of it?

As I eluded, experts have not done a great job helping people move off the fence on the issue of pot’s health risks. According to the NIH: “Cannabis and tobacco smoke are not equally carcinogenic.” Yet in the very same paper, they also say: “…cannabis smoke has been implicated in respiratory dysfunction, including the conversion of respiratory cells to what appears to be a pre-cancerous state.” The causal link to tobacco-related cancer has not been found yet, but: “The genotoxic effects of partially oxidized hydrocarbons created by burning either cannabis or tobacco have been widely examined as the likely source of genetic changes that lead to the carcinogenic state.”  But instead of erring on the side of caution, many will take this kind of milquetoast analysis as a license to smoke. You will always have some who ignore the risk, just like people do with cigarette smoking. But where is the same kind of fervor we see leveled against tobacco? Must we wait until weed becomes a lucrative industry with a requisite number of corporate fat-cats before we stigmatize it?

Then there are the obscurantists trying to convince us pot is no more (or perhaps less) harmful than alcohol. They say it is not addictive. Yet clearly there are dependency issues with pot. They say the psychoactive component of pot, THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), is no more destructive to the mind than alcohol.  Yet again, not true. THC is fat-soluble whereas alcohol is water-soluble. I found this article on the Washington State University website to be helpful. If we skip over the harmful effects on the male and female reproductive system and focus on the half-life of THC you’ll see it’s around 7 days. Even if you take good care of yourself, drink plenty of fluids and exercise, you can only prevent THC build-up if you limit intake to less than once per week. But every one of us with experience knows the majority of pot smokers do not limit themselves to once a week. Why do you think the community of smokers adopted terms like pot head and perma-baked? It’s simple; most pot-smokers intake at a frequency where the accumulation of THC in their system results in a chronic change to their cognitive state.

But I didn’t need to read a study to know this. I’m well-aware of what pot does. I smoked my share in 1980’s and experienced the full effect first hand. I wasn’t a Christian then. I had no objective moral basis to quit. Nor as an unbeliever at that time did I have any subjective moral basis for altering my behavior. But I did have an epiphany. I was working on an electrical engineering project for a company out of Atlanta doing cutting-edge R&D. It was a challenging project and I was the lead engineer on a significant portion of the system. My position on pot flipped dramatically over a several-week period as I continually dealt with a noticeably hindered ability. I finally had my subjective moral basis for quitting. I quit because it was wrong to partake in something leading to chronic stupidity. Nothing I have witnessed in the nearly thirty years following has led me to see this in any other way.

So what if your brain-function is chronically reduced. Why is that an issue? Why is it morally wrong? One guy told me: “I ran a successful business as a pot smoker” (note the past-tense). A very skilled developer I know says he smoked pot every night and his employer was none the wiser. What is wrong with getting by with sub-optimal cognitive ability?  How we respond to these questions depends on our worldview. The Christian understands Scripture is clear on the immorality of being inebriated. This applies to any intoxicant, not just pot, but alcohol too. However, one can savor a glass of wine and be fully lucid. Pot-use, on the other hand, has one, and only one end in mind – inebriation. Apart from legitimate medical scenarios, I cannot see how the Christian can justify its use. Other worldviews will see things differently of course. Those who see man as a mere by-product of material processes with no rhyme, reason or purpose to his existence might easily adopt a justification for chronic stupidity.

It seems we now live in a society where behavioral consequences are mitigated. If you trash your health; others will pick up the tab. If you lose your job because of substandard performance; there is a safety-hammock to catch you. If you ruin your marriage because you are disengaged; you dispose of it without fault or shame. We may even feel some discomfort with our overly lax culture. But such sensitivities will likely atrophy in the case of pot use. Like a man with dementia trying to find his own cure, how ironically circular the situation is here. It reminds me of the scene in the movie Das Boot where they try to restore the electrical system before running out of air. The higher the CO2 levels got, the more mentally difficult problem solving became and less likely they would be able to save themselves. Will marijuana be grist for the mill of depravity? I think so, but we'll know more as we run the experiment.



About the author

I am a Christian, husband, father of two daughters, a partner and lead architect of EasyTerritory, armchair apologist and philosopher, writer of hand-crafted electronic music, avid kiteboarder and a kid around anything that flies (rockets, planes, copters, boomerangs)

On Facebook
On GoodReads