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Old 29th January 2013, 01:09 PM   #1
Jerrymander
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Eyewitness anecdotes vs scientific observations

I've come across some defenders of eyewitness anecodotes who say that they are no different then scientific observations. That is observations are just anecodotes by smart people.

I have my answer to this but I wonder how those of you in field research would respond.
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Old 29th January 2013, 01:32 PM   #2
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I hope reproducibility would figure in.
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Old 29th January 2013, 01:53 PM   #3
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Originally Posted by Jerrymander View Post
I've come across some defenders of eyewitness anecodotes who say that they are no different then scientific observations. That is observations are just anecodotes by smart people.

I have my answer to this but I wonder how those of you in field research would respond.
Can they be objectively corroborated or reproduced? If not, they are just claims awaiting further data.
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Old 29th January 2013, 02:13 PM   #4
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Isn't the rule on scientific observation that it has to be meticulously documented, reproduce-able when applicable, and supportable by all available physical evidence? Anecdotes can be any old story and you don't even have to know the names, dates or locations let alone provide physical evidence.

And yes, scientists will share anecdotes now and then. However they don't base theories on them, they're just swapping funny stories.
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Old 29th January 2013, 04:37 PM   #5
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I think the worst feeling in the world would be for a scientist to witness something incredible and not be able to prove it scientifically...

Physicist is on vacation in S America, horrible rain storm occurs, and he sees ball lightning in the flesh.


Marine Biologist is up late on the deck of the research vessel alone, sees enormous shark surface and dive.


I have no idea if any of these two things are real. (evidence is pretty lacking) but it would really suck to see it and have no proof you did.



Not that this somehow validates the statements made by Bigfooters or anything. My examples are fictional, just as Bigfoot is!
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Old 29th January 2013, 06:41 PM   #6
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Originally Posted by StankApe View Post
I think the worst feeling in the world would be for a scientist to witness something incredible and not be able to prove it scientifically...

Physicist is on vacation in S America, horrible rain storm occurs, and he sees ball lightning in the flesh.


Marine Biologist is up late on the deck of the research vessel alone, sees enormous shark surface and dive.


I have no idea if any of these two things are real. (evidence is pretty lacking) but it would really suck to see it and have no proof you did.



Not that this somehow validates the statements made by Bigfooters or anything. My examples are fictional, just as Bigfoot is!
Think about the WOW! signal.
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Old 29th January 2013, 06:49 PM   #7
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I had forgotten about that!

But at least he had some data to point at.


ETA:your avatar has me HYPNOTIZED!

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Old 29th January 2013, 06:57 PM   #8
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Originally Posted by StankApe View Post


Not that this somehow validates the statements made by Bigfooters or anything. My examples are fictional, just as Bigfoot is!
O ya! Then, how do you explain the missing melons I left outside the other night, I know a Sasquatch took them because they were too big for anything else to carry off.

Tim ~
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Old 29th January 2013, 07:04 PM   #9
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Originally Posted by RedRatSnake View Post
O ya! Then, how do you explain the missing melons I left outside the other night, I know a Sasquatch took them because they were too big for anything else to carry off.
wizard
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Old 29th January 2013, 07:18 PM   #10
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Originally Posted by StankApe View Post
I had forgotten about that!

But at least he had some data to point at.


ETA:your avatar has me HYPNOTIZED!

You know who that is, don't you? It's Stains the hypno-dog from The Soup on the E! channel. I busted a gut laughing watching that over and over and over.
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Old 29th January 2013, 07:19 PM   #11
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never have watched The Soup, but that's really funny, I thought it might be your dog with a few minor photoshop adjustments!
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Old 29th January 2013, 07:25 PM   #12
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Originally Posted by StankApe View Post
wizard
Sure beats the hell out of thinking a Bigfeets took them, Thanks, I'll sleep better knowing some big hairy myth ain't a going to throw rocks at my window panes whilst I'm a sleepin.


Tim ~
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Old 29th January 2013, 07:28 PM   #13
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best keep yer melons inside too. Nothing worst than having those melons at your fingertips only to let them sag away to waste....
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Old 29th January 2013, 07:51 PM   #14
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Originally Posted by StankApe View Post
best keep yer melons inside too. Nothing worst than having those melons at your fingertips only to let them sag away to waste....
I put out the fruity melons, the others I like to keep at a close distance when I'm home, they ain't as firm and ripe as they used to be, maybe a bit droopy towards the knees now that they are in their 50's, but I'm still a sucker when they come out of the freezer to play.

Tim ~
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Old 29th January 2013, 07:53 PM   #15
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Originally Posted by Jerrymander View Post
I've come across some defenders of eyewitness anecodotes who say that they are no different then scientific observations. That is observations are just anecodotes by smart people.

I have my answer to this but I wonder how those of you in field research would respond.
For a long time personal observations were all we had. Even as instrumentality developed personal observation was the only way of getting some data. It still is today, for some types of data (like say magnitude of pain or taste of some compound). For a large part though, scientific observations today are made by instrumentality, as must be, as such observations are simply beyond our ability to, well, observe. So the question comes how do we make ourselves better observers for those data sets still dependent on personal observations. Basically training and standardization, make ‘The Man’ a machine, a trained observer in some field. The problems of course being not only just the limitations imposed by that very training and standardization but also the fundamental human limits that resulted in the dependence on instrumentality for the afore mentioned large part of science.



For the most part “scientific observations” today are made by instrumentality then interpreted by very large groups of very smart people as well as smaller groups of, how shall I say, very challenged people.
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Old 29th January 2013, 07:54 PM   #16
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bwahahaha the FREEZER!!!!

that's great!


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Old 29th January 2013, 08:05 PM   #17
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Originally Posted by The Man View Post
For a long time personal observations were all we had. Even as instrumentality developed personal observation was the only way of getting some data. It still is today, for some types of data (like say magnitude of pain or taste of some compound). For a large part though, scientific observations today are made by instrumentality, as must be, as such observations are simply beyond our ability to, well, observe. So the question comes how do we make ourselves better observers for those data sets still dependent on personal observations. Basically training and standardization, make ‘The Man’ a machine, a trained observer in some field. The problems of course being not only just the limitations imposed by that very training and standardization but also the fundamental human limits that resulted in the dependence on instrumentality for the afore mentioned large part of science.



For the most part “scientific observations” today are made by instrumentality then interpreted by very large groups of very smart people as well as smaller groups of, how shall I say, very challenged people.
As a scientist, I'd say there is something to this. I've much rather have a calibrated instrument making measurements because (ideally), it will measure the same thing the same way every time without subjective considerations.
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Old 29th January 2013, 08:10 PM   #18
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Originally Posted by StankApe View Post
I think the worst feeling in the world would be for a scientist to witness something incredible and not be able to prove it scientifically...

Physicist is on vacation in S America, horrible rain storm occurs, and he sees ball lightning in the flesh.

Marine Biologist is up late on the deck of the research vessel alone, sees enormous shark surface and dive.

I have no idea if any of these two things are real. (evidence is pretty lacking) but it would really suck to see it and have no proof you did.

Not that this somehow validates the statements made by Bigfooters or anything. My examples are fictional, just as Bigfoot is!
Another, non-fictional, example.

A number of respected ornithologists "rediscover" the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

Millions are spent over 5 or so years on surveys and no evidence is turned up other than the original blob-pecker fuzzy video and some recordings of hammer (double-knocks) that are next to useless since no verified recordings of these exist.
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Old 29th January 2013, 08:21 PM   #19
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Originally Posted by StankApe View Post
bwahahaha the FREEZER!!!!

that's great!


I thank the stank!!


Funny you should mention “FREEZER”. An antidote I was going to relate but choose not, till now.

Back in my days in an engineering lab one of the things we were working on were corrosion inhibitors. The particular aspect in this test was how pliable and flexibly do they remain in freezing temperatures. So I would place samples in a freezer and remove them at regular intervals to see how easy they were to stir and record the results. Sample size, time intervals even the ‘stirability’ scale were all things I laid out in the test procedures. While I had automated much of the data collection (by instrumentality) in the lab at that time (late 80s early 90s) still some tests were just by feel or appearance.
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Old 29th January 2013, 08:25 PM   #20
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well, my laughing post was about red rat snake and his "melons" but I liked your post too!
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Old 29th January 2013, 08:39 PM   #21
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Originally Posted by John Jones View Post
As a scientist, I'd say there is something to this. I've much rather have a calibrated instrument making measurements because (ideally), it will measure the same thing the same way every time without subjective considerations.
My preference as well, John Jones. Back in the days I mentioned before when I automated a vibration forced response test (for vibration dampers). I found that they had been doing it wrong for years. The spectrum analyzer that failed (and I replaced with a computer controlled data acquisition and report system) had a function labeled “increased accuracy” that they always used. This function was intended for a discrete spectrum only (to get better definition at those distinct transitions) however, the forced response test was a continuous application. Heck the instrument manual even specifically cautioned against using that function in continuous applications. Ah, the human element (even with instrumentality).
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Old 29th January 2013, 08:47 PM   #22
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Originally Posted by StankApe View Post
well, my laughing post was about red rat snake and his "melons" but I liked your post too!

Oops, sorry...

snake and "melons" you say. Could make for some intriguing anecdotal observations
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Old 29th January 2013, 08:54 PM   #23
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Anecdotal observations are legitimate evidence.

The problem is the unsupportable conclusions people draw from the anecdotes, and the problem is that to be useful to draw said conclusions one needs systematic collection of anecdotes with some means of controls for the variables.
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Old 29th January 2013, 09:06 PM   #24
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Originally Posted by Skeptic Ginger View Post
Anecdotal observations are legitimate evidence.

The problem is the unsupportable conclusions people draw from the anecdotes, and the problem is that to be useful to draw said conclusions one needs systematic collection of anecdotes with some means of controls for the variables.
Don't all that just mean if you can't prove it, It's just Bull S****

Or perhaps ~ That was a static filled, triple scrambled, microwave transmission intended for forum members that speak in Mandarin Chinese.

Tim
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Old 29th January 2013, 10:36 PM   #25
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Originally Posted by RedRatSnake View Post
Don't all that just mean if you can't prove it, It's just Bull S****

Or perhaps ~ That was a static filled, triple scrambled, microwave transmission intended for forum members that speak in Mandarin Chinese.

Tim
No, that's not it at all.

It means, the scientific process can include anecdotal observations as long are they are systematically collected and variables controlled for. Where we get into trouble is where we don't pay attention to the brain's natural tendency to draw cause and effect conclusions. Natural brain biology had it's place as humankind grew up. But now we know how to compensate for the flaws in our nature. The scientific process is superior to the brain's natural assessment of the world it experiences. Now we don't just avoid the sabertooth and build a great house, now we can send a robot to Mars and taste Martian soil.
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Old 29th January 2013, 10:38 PM   #26
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Yeah but a "one off" anecdotal observation with no repeatability or evidence, even by a scientist is kinda worthless eh?
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Old 30th January 2013, 01:21 AM   #27
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Originally Posted by Jerrymander View Post
I've come across some defenders of eyewitness anecodotes who say that they are no different then scientific observations. That is observations are just anecodotes by smart people.

I have my answer to this but I wonder how those of you in field research would respond.
Just because a scientist observes something does not make it a scientific observation. Plenty of scientists watched Uri Geller perform his flim-flam and were convinced that they were seeing something paranormal.

Other than that, I agree with Skeptic Ginger.
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Old 30th January 2013, 02:20 AM   #28
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Originally Posted by Jerrymander View Post
I've come across some defenders of eyewitness anecodotes who say that they are no different then scientific observations. That is observations are just anecodotes by smart people.

I have my answer to this but I wonder how those of you in field research would respond.
In medicine there is something called case report.
That's basically a paper written on a single patient. There may be lots of documentation available, such as records from instruments, and protocols, and even biological samples. Plus there will be at least one reliable witness, if not several in the form of doctors and nurses.
Still, a case report is considered an anecdote.

Previous posters have already pointed out the trouble with anecdotes but it bears repeating.
First is the question of reproducibility. No single observation is particularly reliable as there is always the possibility of human error or fraud, and machine malfunction.

Second is the question of causal attribution. Just because A happens before B once does not mean that A causes B. It does not even mean that A is usually correlated with B.
Knowing that makes the difference between a scientist and a normal person:

http://xkcd.com/242/
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Old 30th January 2013, 02:51 AM   #29
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Originally Posted by RedRatSnake View Post
Don't all that just mean if you can't prove it, It's just Bull S****

Or perhaps ~ That was a static filled, triple scrambled, microwave transmission intended for forum members that speak in Mandarin Chinese.

Tim
Lack of proof or repeatability doesn't make something " Bull S****". Events are sometimes singular and not reproducible even with extensive laboratory assets. One of my functions in the engineering lab (as now) was/is failure mode analysis. How and why something failed (sometimes it's just the people). Often you just get the pieces that are left and conflicting stories of what happened. Logs or recording devices can help as well as the physical parts to try to piece (pun intended) the event together. Some aspects may conflict with others but this does not necessarily make them BS. Certainly some things and some personal observations (what someone thinks or claims happened) can be readily discounted by available data. However, though you might not be able to prove what happened doesn't make the results of the analysis BS. It just means the available data is insufficient to draw a definitive conclusion (as Skeptic Ginger notes).
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Old 30th January 2013, 05:23 AM   #30
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Originally Posted by Jerrymander View Post
I've come across some defenders of eyewitness anecodotes who say that they are no different then scientific observations. That is observations are just anecodotes by smart people.

I have my answer to this but I wonder how those of you in field research would respond.
The main issues I see are two:
-interpretation of the events 'I saw the Virgin Mary'
-statements from newspapers from the past which were fifth hand when printed
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Old 30th January 2013, 05:49 AM   #31
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Originally Posted by StankApe View Post
Physicist is on vacation in S America, horrible rain storm occurs, and he sees ball lightning in the flesh.


Marine Biologist is up late on the deck of the research vessel alone, sees enormous shark surface and dive.
The physicist might take a note of the exact conditions of both weather and landscape and use that as a jumping-off point for trying to re-create it in the lab. The marine biologist might take a note of where she was when she saw the shark and either remian there for longer trying to see it again, or come back later with the express purpose of looking for it.

Point is, neither would expect anybody to take their anecdote as proof. If they wanted others to believe them, they'd look for more evidence, and a way to record and verify that evidence. They certainly wouldn't take a request for evidence as a personal affront.

Well, depending on the scientists, of course. Scientists can be just as irrational as anybody else, but what I say is broadly true.
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Old 30th January 2013, 10:09 AM   #32
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Originally Posted by StankApe View Post
Yeah but a "one off" anecdotal observation with no repeatability or evidence, even by a scientist is kinda worthless eh?
Depends. A single sighting of a species thought to be extinct by a trained observer might not be 'proof', but it is nonetheless a valuable anecdotal observation.

I know what you're trying to say, but my point is, the blanket dismissal of all anecdotal reports doesn't accurately describe the problem.
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Old 30th January 2013, 10:12 AM   #33
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Originally Posted by Jerrymander View Post
I've come across some defenders of eyewitness anecodotes who say that they are no different then scientific observations. That is observations are just anecodotes by smart people.

I have my answer to this but I wonder how those of you in field research would respond.
The anecdote is the weakest form of evidence in science and medicine. As already noted by several posters, an anecdote is a one time observation by an individual which lacks controls for observer biases, has not been repeated, and lacks experimental intervention to help determine causality. A single anecdote or observation is almost useless; a series of similar anecdotes (or case series) is somewhat more reliable in that the observed event takes on an element of repeatability, although uncontrolled.

The problems with all anecdotes are very well covered in these forums, and revolve around the inherent biases in human observation and the failings of human memory. While a trained scientist may be less prone to fall prey to these than a layman, a good scientist will recognize the necessity of controlling for them. Thus an interesting anecdotal observation may become the subject of controlled observation and experiment, where known and suspected biases are systematically controlled for and causality can be addressed by forming explicit testable hypotheses and then putting them to the test(s).

When you speak of a "scientific observations", I am not sure what you mean. A simple observation (anecdote) has the failings described no matter who makes the observation. Your qualifier "scientific" appears to denote an element of bias control and hypothesis testing which is not part of the general understanding implied by "anecdote".
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Old 30th January 2013, 10:13 AM   #34
Skeptic Ginger
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Originally Posted by Ladewig View Post
Just because a scientist observes something does not make it a scientific observation. Plenty of scientists watched Uri Geller perform his flim-flam and were convinced that they were seeing something paranormal.

Other than that, I agree with Skeptic Ginger.
I would quibble with your definition of "scientific observation". The scientists' conclusions in your example would be wrong, but we don't know enough from your description whether their observations followed the principles of the scientific process.


Other than that, I agree with you.
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Old 30th January 2013, 10:18 AM   #35
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Originally Posted by MuDPhuD View Post
....
When you speak of a "scientific observations", I am not sure what you mean. A simple observation (anecdote) has the failings described no matter who makes the observation. Your qualifier "scientific" appears to denote an element of bias control and hypothesis testing which is not part of the general understanding implied by "anecdote".
You are using the lay skeptic definition of anecdote.

There is a scientific term called an 'observation' and we often collect historical accounts of observations by eye witnesses in a scientific inquiry.

What's the difference between an anecdote and a described observation?
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Old 30th January 2013, 10:20 AM   #36
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Originally Posted by Squeegee Beckenheim View Post
The physicist might take a note of the exact conditions of both weather and landscape and use that as a jumping-off point for trying to re-create it in the lab. The marine biologist might take a note of where she was when she saw the shark and either remian there for longer trying to see it again, or come back later with the express purpose of looking for it.

Point is, neither would expect anybody to take their anecdote as proof. If they wanted others to believe them, they'd look for more evidence, and a way to record and verify that evidence. They certainly wouldn't take a request for evidence as a personal affront.

Well, depending on the scientists, of course. Scientists can be just as irrational as anybody else, but what I say is broadly true.
As a case in point:
http://www.amazon.com/search-beneath...eneath+the+sea

When the coelecanth was caught in a fish net in 1938, the fisherman observed it to be unusual, and the scientists (Marjorie Courtney-Latimer and Dr J.L.B. Smith) who observed its decaying carcass realized its importance. Unfortunately the single specimen was not well preserved, and many doubted the identification. Of note, Dr J.L.B. Smith spent THE REST OF HIS LIFE looking for another specimen to confirm his single observation.
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Old 30th January 2013, 10:30 AM   #37
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Originally Posted by Skeptic Ginger View Post
You are using the lay skeptic definition of anecdote.

There is a scientific term called an 'observation' and we often collect historical accounts of observations by eye witnesses in a scientific inquiry.

What's the difference between an anecdote and a described observation?
I'm not familiar with the term "described observation".
My understanding of "anecdote" is the Medical one (From Wikipedia, anecdotal evidence):

"Anecdotal evidence can have varying degrees of formality. For instance, in medicine, published anecdotal evidence by a trained observer (a doctor) is called a case report, and is subjected to formal peer review.[12] Although such evidence is not seen as conclusive, it is sometimes regarded as an invitation to more rigorous scientific study of the phenomenon in question.[13] For instance, one study found that 35 of 47 anecdotal reports of side effects were later sustained as "clearly correct."[14]
Anecdotal evidence is considered the least certain type of scientific information.[15] It is the opposite of scientific evidence.[16] Researchers may use anecdotal evidence for suggesting new hypotheses, but never as validating evidence."
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Old 30th January 2013, 01:17 PM   #38
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Originally Posted by MuDPhuD View Post
I'm not familiar with the term "described observation".
My understanding of "anecdote" is the Medical one (From Wikipedia, anecdotal evidence):

"Anecdotal evidence can have varying degrees of formality. For instance, in medicine, published anecdotal evidence by a trained observer (a doctor) is called a case report, and is subjected to formal peer review.[12] Although such evidence is not seen as conclusive, it is sometimes regarded as an invitation to more rigorous scientific study of the phenomenon in question.[13] For instance, one study found that 35 of 47 anecdotal reports of side effects were later sustained as "clearly correct."[14]
Anecdotal evidence is considered the least certain type of scientific information.[15] It is the opposite of scientific evidence.[16] Researchers may use anecdotal evidence for suggesting new hypotheses, but never as validating evidence."
I said "observation", not "described observation", as in one described an observation. It was a described observation.

I think you parsed my post oddly.

How does an anecdote differ from an observation?

As for describing anecdotes in medical research, I'm well versed. I'm a nurse practitioner. It's why I have to point out anecdotes are evidence in this forum all the time.
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Old 30th January 2013, 01:22 PM   #39
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Originally Posted by Skeptic Ginger View Post
Depends. A single sighting of a species thought to be extinct by a trained observer might not be 'proof', but it is nonetheless a valuable anecdotal observation.

I know what you're trying to say, but my point is, the blanket dismissal of all anecdotal reports doesn't accurately describe the problem.
Ok I think I understand where you are coming from much better now, those big words you use at times get tangled in my head and just make me dizzy ~

Tim
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Old 30th January 2013, 01:33 PM   #40
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Yep, thats what I was thinking. "controlled" vs "uncontrolled" is the key. Scientists come prepared to observe a phenomenon and set up protocols. This is usuall not the case for ancedotes.

Here's an article discussing the problems of the latter.

http://nctc.fws.gov/EC/Resources/dev...20-%206-08.pdf
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