When trying to prove a point, it is important to distinguish between empirical vs anecdotal evidence. So what do these terms mean? Empirical means that you collect data from experiments run in a controlled environment. Anecdotal evidence is personal and not always reliable.

Empirical vs anecdotal

What is empirical evidence?

Empirical means that the evidence is gathered from experiments run in a controlled environment, such as a laboratory. The important thing is that the experiment is repeatable, and will provide the same results each time it is carried out.

This is factual evidence, and is therefore reliable.

What is anecdotal evidence?

Anecdotal evidence is based on personal experience of one person or small group of people. It cannot be relied on to provide factual evidence. For example, if Jane says that she got better from taking a certain medicine, this cannot be used as factual evidence that the same medicine will cure all similar people of the same condition. This is because Jane may have taken the medicine when she was already recovering.

Empirical evidence vs anecdotal evidence?

Empirical and anecdotal are two different methods of gathering evidence. Anecdotal information is more personal and less reliable than empirical evidence. It can only provide for generalisations.

One person’s experience can never be used to make a scientific generalisation such as “all people taking medicine will get better” or “all people using the same brand of soap will have good results”. This is because each person has their own experiences, which may not be similar to other people’s experiences.
For example, if Jane and Jim both use a soap brand on their hands in the same way, it would be foolish to say that they will both achieve the same results. Jane may use the soap more often than Jim, for example.

When should you use empirical evidence?

Emperical evidence should be used when preparing to publish your work. This is because the scientific community will be interested in your work, and you need to show that you have not made any errors or exaggerated the results.

Evidence based information can only provide for generalisations, so it is not suitable for all situations. For example, if two people try a medicine on themselves with no prior experience of the medicine, anecdotal evidence about good results cannot be used to prove that the same medicine will help other people.

When is anecdotal evidence useful?

Anecdotal evidence can be used to make a decision on a very small scale. For example, an individual may use anecdotal information to decide which soap brand to use based on the fact that one soap brand caused their skin irritation while another one did not. The person then decides to try the brand that did not cause irritation and if it works for them, they will continue using it. However, they know that this does not prove that the brand will work for all people.

Anecdotal evidence is useful for making small decisions such as which soap to use, but it should never be used in place of scientific fact. For example, you could not say from anecdotal evidence that “people who use this brand of soap will always have good skin” or “people who use this brand of soap are more likely to get better if they have sunburn”.

Can you use empirical evidence to support your claims?

Empirical evidence can be used as supporting information for your claims. You can show that a lot of people tried the same thing and found it worked, or that a lot of scientific research supports your claims. This should not be used to make absolute statements such as “all people who use soap will get good results” because this cannot be proven based on empirical evidence.

Are there any exceptions?

There are a few examples of anecdotal evidence being used to back up scientific claims. One example is when the inventor of a new drug presents anecdotal evidence that the drug has worked for them, and many people have used it and found that it worked. Other medicines based on the same concept may then be tested in controlled experiments to see if they work as well as the new drug.

Another exception involves literary criticism and deciding whether or not a book is “good”. Generally, the average person will only have a rough idea of whether or not they enjoyed a book, as they will only have read the first few chapters. However, if Jane’s friend Sally says that she really enjoyed reading the book, this can be used as anecdotal evidence to make a decision on whether the book is good or not.

Real world examples

When deciding whether to vaccinate or not, many parents turn to anecdotal evidence from friends. These parents think that because a friend’s vaccinated child is healthy, then their own children will also be healthy if they are vaccinated. This is not necessarily the case. It could be that Jane’s healthy child was probably vaccinated without her knowledge or consent, and she did not want to admit that her child had received the vaccination.

In another example, Jane’s friend Sally has a bad eczema rash on her arm. Sally has tried various soaps to try and treat it. She says that if she stops using soap, the rash will appear again on her arm. This is anecdotal evidence which supports Sally’s claim that soap causes rashes. Sally cannot say that soap causes rashes for every person because she has only tried it out on herself. She also cannot say that soap causes rashes in all people because there is no empirical evidence to back up her claim.

The final example is of people who have tried various home remedies to treat their ailments. They may not be trying to find an alternative to a proven remedy, but are only doing so because they are desperate for relief. They then use anecdotal evidence to back up their claims that the remedy will work for them in order for it to be accepted by the scientific community.

One of the biggest mistakes you can make is being too creative with your evidence. The line between being creative and being deceptive is very thin. Here are some tips to be more creative without being deceptive:

  • Use examples that are relevant to the topic.
  • When using anecdotal evidence, make sure it is based on your own experience or the experiences of people who may be similar to you. For example, if your friends have had dandruff and used a certain shampoo that helped them, then you can use this as anecdotal evidence to say the same shampoo will help you too.
  • If you are using anecdotal evidence, make sure that you keep yourself out of the story.
  • Make sure that your evidence is believable and has not been exaggerated. For example, if someone says that a shampoo made their hair grow 10 times longer over night, then it is probably not true.
  • Give your sources at the end of the essay or piece of writing. This will allow people to check your sources for accuracy or further information if they wish to do so.
  • Always be honest and truthful about your evidence. Nothing is more annoying than people telling you that “you can’t use anecdotal evidence” when they are just too lazy to research the topic themselves.

What happens when there is conflicting empirical evidence?

When there is conflicting empirical evidence, you must decide which evidence to believe. You can use either the person with the easier-to-prove evidence or the person with the more convincing evidence. You cannot decide based on an example that is too farfetched. For example, if Sally says that a certain shampoo made her hair grow 10 times longer overnight and Jane looks for this information but does not find anything supporting this claim, then Jane will assume Sally’s story was fabricated because it was too farfetched.

Conclusion

Anecdotal evidence is useful for making small decisions such as which soap to use, but it should never be used in place of scientific fact. For example, if Jane wants to say that soap is healthy for skin, then she must back up this claim with scientific evidence. If Sally wants to say that soap is unhealthy for skin, then she must back up this claim with scientific evidence.

You should never disbelieve anecdotal evidence or use it as proof that something does not work or is unhealthy because it can be faked and exaggerated. You can use anecdotal evidence to help you decide between two conflicting pieces of evidence. For example, if Jane has found anecdotal evidence that soap makes hair grow longer, she can use this as proof it works. If Sally has found empirical evidence that soap does not make hair grow longer, then she can use this as proof that it does not work.

If there is no empirical evidence on a topic and there is only anecdotal evidence, it will be hard to say whether something happens or not. If someone has very convincing anecdotal evidence, then it can be used as proof that something does happen. If someone has very convincing anecdotal evidence, but other people who have similar health issues have not experienced this phenomenon, then it can be used as proof that something does not happen.

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