‘Anecdote is not evidence’ is a phrase you’ll often hear from people like me who look for science to be the basis of belief and policy. It is used against anyone who wants to support a dodgy argument by telling an individual story and hoping they can sell that as the norm.
The counter brings in another well-known phrase that ‘there are exceptions to every rule’ meaning that you cannot take a single example, or even a handful of examples, and claim they describe a general situation.
The problem is that anecdotes tend to make more interesting reporting than the evidence and the media, therefore, tends to favour them and is rarely scrupulous about pointing out the underlying facts of a situation.
These thoughts have been brought up by two stories about two very different plants.
The first is, again, Jacobaea vulgaris (syn. Senecio jacobaea), common ragwort. This came up because Neil Jones of the ‘Ragwort Hysteria’ blog let me know that he had phoned in to a BBC local radio station that was putting out the usual myths and misinformation about ragwort based on anecdotes from listeners.
There is a problem with BBC local radio. This was seen, recently, when BBC Radio Surrey and BBC Radio Sussex allowed a homeopathist to present her beliefs as facts. In this instance, the broadcast was brought to the attention of Simon Singh who contacted the station and was assured that the broadcast should not have happened and that the station ‘will not be giving advice based on homeopathy on BBC Sussex and BBC Surrey in the future.’1
The problem, as this incident shows, is that BBC local radio does not have large enough budgets to ensure that all its programming meets BBC guidelines but has to fill its airtime and engage the local community without whose support the stations would likely see their budgets cut further.
This local engagement is at the heart of Tony Fisher’s programme2 on BBC Hereford and Worcester. Several times during the segment I listened to this morning, Mr Fisher invited listeners to contact him about any local problems promising to put the weight of the station into dealing with them.
The problem with that approach is that when someone contacted the programme to complain about ragwort on a roadside verge and said that the local council were obliged to remove it, Fisher accepted that as fact and asked for further examples of local councils failing in their duty. This happened on Tuesday 31st July and was only dealt with briefly in that broadcast.
The following day, Fisher returned to the subject with more time available. I think it is reasonable to expect a BBC station to conduct research before going to air on any topic but, even if you are going to put out a programme without doing any research, it would be sensible to listen to what contributors have to say. The item on ragwort from Wednesday’s programme starts at 2hrs 18min and is available until noon on the 8th August on the BBC iPlayer and Neil Jones’ call is taken at 2hrs 24min. If you are able to listen to it you’ll hear that the call is kept very short and, immediately after, Tony Fisher completely ignores what Jones had to say and continues with the same inflammatory description of the plant.
Fisher returned to the subject on today’s programme (available until 9th August) and spoke to a representative from Worcestershire council about what measures they were taking. This gentleman pointed out that it is ragwort in hay that causes the problem and that animals won’t eat the living plant. Even then, Fisher ignored what he said and still described it as ‘a dangerous weed’.
I don’t know what the answer is. That is, I know what the answer is to this incident. I emailed Mr Fisher and followed that with an email to the station manager and I’ll see what response I get and whether it is necessary to raise an official complaint.
What I mean is I don’t know what the answer is when the media prefers anecdotes to evidence. Neil Jones’ comments about scientific research were greeted with an almost audible yawn.
Perhaps the answer is to counter anecdote with anecdote. After all, if the public accepts these stories as fact then they might accept anecdotes based on fact as fact.
That thought brings me to my second plant; Cannabis sativa, marijuana. There are a mass of anecdotes about cannabis seeking to create a negative image about the plant. You could say that it was anecdotes that made the basis of ‘Reefer Madness’ the movie I watched recently.
The one I want to focus on is the notion that cannabis makes its users idle wasters. This notion is promulgated just about every time there is a story about cannabis use. TV and radio, in particular, can be relied on to trot out some distraught parent who will say that their offspring had been a hard-working student before beginning to use marijuana and now they refused to do any work and had become a stranger.
Now, you could use science to counter such anecdotes. On the plant page of this site I say;
‘In the 1970s, a detailed scientific study of cannabis use amongst the working class in Jamaica was undertaken by the Institute for the Study of Man, supported by the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. The study was led by Vera Rubin and Lambras Comitas who co-authored a book 'Ganja in Jamaica' setting out their findings.
‘One key finding was that cannabis use made agricultural workers more thorough. When digging over ground they would use substantially more fork strokes, and expend more energy, under the influence of cannabis. This is not to say their work was better, simply that they paid more attention to it. In spite of this finding and in spite of the mass of evidence from regular cannabis users there are many who persist in depicting cannabis users as idle wasters.’
Further on, I refer to the 2006 World Drug Report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). This notes that many regular, heavy cannabis users confine their consumption to their after work hours and weekends. That indication that a high proportion of users show no lack of work ethic, coupled with the findings from Jamaica, should be enough to lay the cannabis makes you idle anecdotes to rest.
But, as I said, countering anecdote with evidence isn’t always effective so let me try countering anecdote with anecdote.
There is someone, a known cannabis user, who is in the news, at the moment, for being one of the world’s greatest ever all-time athletes. Michael Phelps has continued to build his Olympic medal tally at the London2012 games in spite of admitting to have used marijuana after a picture of him appeared in the UK in 2009.3
So, if people can take one incident and suggest it is representative, surely I can cite Michael Phelps as proof that smoking cannabis helps you work harder and succeed?
To finish, I wanted to draw your attention to an excellent video clip4 from 1967. My thanks to Sanho Tree for tweeting about this. In 1967, a reporter asked Paul McCartney if he had ever used LSD and McCartney said he had. The video shows an interview made by ITV where the reporter presses McCartney to say that he has shown himself to be a bad influence on young people.
McCartney points out that he was asked a question and chose to tell the truth rather than lie. He then goes on to say that it is the media, including the interview he is recording, that is spreading the story and, if anyone is encouraging drug use in young people it is them not him.
My polite complaint to the BBC & its impact Simon Singh’s
blog 15th July 2012
2. Tony Fisher BBC Hereford and Worcester
3. Swimmer Phelps regrets pot pipe BBC 1st February 2009
4. Good Advice for Michael Phelps The Daily Beast 1st August 2012
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