Thursday, January 6, 2011

Hookahs and Anecdotes

From Andrew Gelman's Blog:

The evidence is certainly all around you pointing in the wrong direction - if you're willing to accept anecdotal evidence - there's always going to be an unlimited amount of evidence which won't tell you anything.
This is in the context of a panel of experts wondering if Hookahs cause lung cancer - one of the esteemed panelists used the fact that an uncle lived to 90 while smoking a hookah every day. I think there is an additional psychological mechanism involved in accepting this kind of anecdotal evidence - it is the direct experience of the person making the claim. Unfiltered by statistics, other people's attention to detail, and possibly dodgy methodology. It is particularly easy to accept anecdotal evidence when the process in question is impossible to experience directly - like the population level risk of cancer - or in my case, density dependent reductions in population vital rates. Even when faced with their own data, plotted in a different way to demonstrate the population consequences, people cling to their own experience. And unfortunately, density dependence isn't something you can experience directly.

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