The word “anecdotal” is defined as something that is based on “personal observation, case study reports, or random investigations rather than systematic scientific evaluation.”1 Anecdotal evidence relies on personal accounts, stories shared by people about what happened to them or what they observed.2
In the ongoing debate about vaccine safety, anecdotal evidence of harm to individuals following vaccination is largely discounted because it is not considered science-based. Mandatory vaccination apologists within the medical community simply dismiss as unreliable, coincidental, or irrelevant all those testimonies by countless parents who are reporting:
My child was fine—perfectly healthy and meeting all developmental milestones—until vaccinations, after which in a matter of hours, or days, they had severe medical issues and/or began a regression into an autistic state, or simply stopped breathing and died.3
In an article in The Guardian titled “In praise of anecdotal evidence,” Dick Vinegar acknowledged, “The word anecdotal now seems to be regarded as a term of abuse in research circles.”4
What is interesting is that this seeming disdain for anecdotal evidence by many doctors is a relatively recent phenomenon. According to Vinegar, the discipline of “evidence-based medicine” (EBM) was developed during the 1970s and the term first appeared in the medical literature in 1992.4
Since then, there has been a steady move toward reliance on EBM and away from anecdotal evidence, which doctors and scientists have long relied on to make their diagnoses, discoveries and conclusions. But how much sense does that really make? Vinegar noted, for example, that so much of medical science is based on pre-EBM thinking:
I wonder whether the great scientists of the past—William Harvey with the circulation of the blood, Louis Pasteur with vaccination, Pierre and Marie Curie with X-rays and Alexander Fleming with penicillin—used such a rigorous discipline to make their groundbreaking discoveries. I ask myself whether today’s medical establishment would accept as “scientific” the evidence that backed up their magnificent breakthroughs. I have a sneaky suspicion that today’s doctors would pooh-pooh their evidence as “anecdotal”.4
All of these “groundbreaking discoveries” relied on anecdotal evidence. In other words, clinical observations of real people and case history studies, which serve to create a narrative and tell a story, can be extremely useful in guiding important medical research.
In a paper published in the journal PLOS Medicine, Ralph Campo wrote, “The irony in our growing intolerance of the anecdote is that storytelling is full of lessons in imagination and invention so beneficial to the creative investigator.”5 He added, “Whether we choose to admit it or not, the anecdote continues to be an important engine of novel ideas in medicine.”5
Many doctors believe in anecdotal evidence; they just don’t like to use the term. They prefer clinical observations and case studies.
In their 1985 book DPT: A Shot in the Dark, Harris Coulter and Barbara Loe Fisher wrote how Georges Peter, MD noted with “perception and humor” that when the vaccine safety advocacy group Dissatisfied Parents Together (DPT) described vaccine injury cases, it was called “anecdotal evidence” but when doctors did it, it was called “clinical observation.”6
But it is more than semantics. It also has to do with who is telling the story. If patients provide the anecdotal evidence, somehow that does not pass muster with many doctors. If doctors provide the same thing, that’s different.
This lack of respect for patients and openness to what they have to say is not confined to anecdotal evidence regarding harm, which the patients believed was caused by vaccines. It is part of broader problem within medicine in which conventional doctors are increasingly reluctant to listen to their patients.7 8 9
“My doctor doesn’t listen to me” is a perennial complaint in patient satisfaction surveys and group discussions.7
1 anecdotal. Dictionary.com.
2 anecdotal. Vocabulary.com.
3 Brain Damage/Death from Vaccines is NOT Rare. Vaccine-Injury.info.
4 Vinegar D. In praise of anecdotal evidence. The Guardian Sept. 3, 2012.
5 Campo R. “Anecdotal Evidence”: Why Narratives Matter to Medical Practice. PLOS Medicine Oct. 24, 20o6.
6 Coulter HL, Fisher BL. DPT: A Shot in the Dark. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1985; Avery 1991.
7 Appleby C. Getting Doctors To Listen to Patients. Managed Care December 1996.
8 Drake D. Why Your Doctor Doesn’t Listen to You. The Daily Beast Sept. 11, 2014
9 Girgis L. Why Doctors Are Losing the Public’s Trust. Physician’s Weekly Feb. 20, 2015.