by Michael Shermer
Anecdotes fuel pattern-seeking thought. Aunt Mildred’s cancer went into remission after she imbibed extract of seaweed—maybe it works. But there is only one surefire method of proper pattern recognition, and that is science. Only when a group of cancer patients taking seaweed extract is compared with a control group can we draw a valid conclusion.
We evolved as a social primate species whose language ability facilitated the exchange of such association anecdotes. The problem is that although true pattern recognition helps us survive, false pattern recognition does not necessarily get us killed, and so the overall phenomenon has endured the winnowing process of natural selection. The Darwin Awards (honoring those who remove themselves from the gene pool), like this column, will never want for examples. Anecdotal thinking comes naturally; science requires training.