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I had to vote this up because of the meta-nature of the article. If anybody makes a comment disagreeing with it while sharing an anecdote they only play into's the author's theme! It's like accusing somebody of being in denial: there's nothing they can say in return that doesn't somehow support the idea that they are in denial. Love it.

Having said that, this is another really bad article in what seems like an endless series of bad articles on HN. Here are a few of the more obvious flaws:

- There is no universal truth as the author seems to imply. Simply because some publication or source you may like has performed some sort of statistical study doesn't have a lot of meaning on it's own. Yes, 100% of the people who eat bananas are dead within 120 years of their consumption. No, that does not mean bananas are bad. The study or scientific reporting is simply the beginning of a much longer conversation society has over many decades that leads us to higher-fidelity models.

- The purpose of a social site is to behave socially. While places like HN have (or used to have) a lot of different guidelines for the types of behaviors that are encouraged or not, being social means sharing stories, anecdotes. We are not robots.

- The idea that people are unable to sort out personal anecdotes from other forms of information. The follow-up idea that since they are not able to do this, we should prevent ourselves from sharing such stories. This is bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad .... bad(n). We are humans. We share stories. Anybody who says "people are so stupid" can justify just about damn near anything as long as they keep emphasizing the stupidity and danger some people's actions represent.

Every now and then, gasp(!), published research is either wrong or doesn't show anything near what the reporter claims. Anecdotes don't help with this, of course, but they serve to remind us that even well-known scientists working at the highest quality standards available are still just sharing with us a very specialized form on anecdote. We did these things in this way and this is what we observed. Here is how you also can observe this. The really "good" part of the story they are sharing is talking about hidden assumptions, population variance, reproducibility, and so forth. Anecdotes don't do this, but they help us brainstorm ways in which we can improve the discussion, take the next experiment to an even better place.

I'm very uncomfortable with the line of reasoning that goes somewhat like this: people are broken in some way, therefore we must somehow control what they read, say, or think for their own good. To me the beauty of western civilization is that really broken people can do these amazing and awesome things. The fact that we're deeply flawed is the magic. Science and human advancement work because of our flaws, not in spite of them. This is a very important thing to understand! Setting up some ideal of perfection, no matter how well-intended, and then mucking around with the way societal interaction works in some effort to improve on things is heading down a very dark path that has a very unhappy ending. This attitude seems rife in the technology community, however, perhaps because we are such analytical people.

I don't want my fellow man to be irrational and distrustful of science and knowledge. But I'll take that any day over silencing contrarian articles and dissent. We've done the math on this: wrong people who share emotional stories and persuade crowds about all sorts of illogical things are a price that a dynamic community pays for progress.




I generally disagree with the OP and agree with your dissent, but do you not think that the OP could be more charitable read, not as "suppress certain kinds of replies", but as "don't exploit known cognitive biases, and punish people who seek to exploit them"? I'm quite comfortable downvoting naked appeals to emotion ("please won't someone think of the children?"), because I don't think they add anything, and are harmful to, the conversation. I think the OP is making a similar proposal for anecdotal contradiction. Both his examples are chosen well in this light: non-medical replies to a study that found a weak correlation. To me, the contradictions look more like a strawman: the argument they attack seems to be that coffee consumption will, in 100% of cases, cure Alzheimer's, a claim the study never made. I'm not sure we should privilege (or penalize) anecdotal contradiction on anything other than the merits of its argumentation, but in many cases I find that to be extremely weak.


But how do you distinguish between people who simply share their stories because they think it's moderately relevant to the thread, on the one hand, and people who "exploit known cognitive biases", on the other? Exploitation seems to imply deliberate manipulation, which most people who share medical anecdotes don't intend at all. Yet, humans have so many cognitive biases that even the most mundane thing can trigger one or another bias.


"Trigger" is a better word than "exploit", in some ways, but it makes it sound like it's an accident: "sorry, I just fell over your cognitive bias, I had no idea it was there!". In fact I think people have a weak responsibility in good discourse to be aware of known cognitive biases and not to appeal to them. I'm comfortable downvoting people who appeal to emotion even if they're not setting out with the intent of doing it, simply because I think it leads to a worse discussion.

You distinguish between people who are sharing anecdotes and people who are making strawmen arguments in the usual way that you'd distinguish them - by tone, follow-ups, etc. But if your sole contribution to a thread is "me too" (or "actually, not me too"), maybe that contribution isn't particularly valuable in itself.


I'm comfortable downvoting people who appeal to emotion even if they're not setting out with the intent of doing it, simply because I think it leads to a worse discussion.

And I'm comfortable making a "corrective upvote" because I think downvotes should be reserved for obvious spam, completely OT comments and comments that add nothing to the discussion at hand.


Thank you. I was writing a large diatribe of my own, but refreshed in another window and saw yours echoing what I wanted to say, plus a lot that I wouldn't have thought of.

The one other thing that strikes me is that, for the sake of argument, I will often convert more dependable facts into anecdotal form to ease understanding. I've found, through trial and error, that just stating the hard facts tends to lead into a circle of explanation, but stating that same information in more relatable terms is, simply put, more relatable.


I'm not carrying water for the original poster.

"There is no universal truth"? Are you sure? Because if that's true then there is no standard to judge whether one model is "higher-fidelity" and in fact there is nothing for science to do at all. Do you really believe that?

Do you really need to give up the idea that anything is actually true in order to dispute this blog post?

I don't understand how you figure that there is a choice between distrusting science and knowledge and silencing dissent. You seem to think that science and knowledge are just some form of political orthodoxy.


> Because if that's true then there is no standard to judge whether one model is "higher-fidelity" and in fact there is nothing for science to do at all. Do you really believe that?

Theoretically, there is a "universal truth", but for all intents and purposes, there isn't outside the realm of Math.

We judge science's fidelity by how well it correlates with repeatable experiments - which may be characterized by some "universal truth", but that's besides the point. In Newton's day and age, newtonian mechanics seemed to describe essentially everything. And then it turned out to be a crude approximation that only works in large scales.

In 1900, there was a Physics convention, in which the tone was basically: We have everything worked out, except for 3 minor things - Michelson Morley light aberration (solving this required developing the theory of relativity), Black body radiation (solving this required developing quantum theory), and the Photoelectric effect (which also requires quantum theory to explain properly).

> Do you really need to give up the idea that anything is actually true in order to dispute this blog post?

No. But you do need to give up the idea that you have certainty of knowledge about how true things are.

> You seem to think that science and knowledge are just some form of political orthodoxy.

In math, they aren't. In physics, they aren't.

In biology, it's not so clear.

In medicine, and nutrition, there's a ridiculous amount of political orthodoxy and "religious" beliefs -- and last I heard, they were considered sciences.


I never made any claim regarding my own certainty of knowledge, that is a straw man. Please refrain from giving me personal advice when you know nothing about me.

There is a huge difference between saying "something is true, but I don't know what (yet)" and "there is no such thing as truth"; between "a lot of people try to commandeer medicine to sell things" and "there is no actual truth of anything to discover in the field of medicine".


> Please refrain from giving me personal advice when you know nothing about me.

I was not giving you any personal advice. I was taking your "you" as a general statement to the reader, and replying with the same language pattern (e.g. if I said "you can bring a horse to water", I would actually mean "one can bring a horse to water".)

> There is a huge difference between saying "something is true, but I don't know what (yet)" and "there is no such thing as truth"; between "a lot of people try to commandeer medicine to sell things" and "there is no actual truth of anything to discover in the field of medicine".

Indeed, there is a huge difference, I don't think anyone is disputing that.

What some people (me included) are disputing is that what is considered "the state of the art" in the many sciences (other than math and physics), is actually not the result of rigorous scientific study that it is assumed to be, and that therefore well reasoned and supported contrarian explanations, data and opinions should be welcome (they aren't; there's active suppression).


It's one thing when learned people dig into the science and find issues to disagree about, it is completely different when some ignorant reporter or blogger disagrees just based on anecdotes or how truthy it feels to them


Someone who is good with statistics is more learned than the prominent experts in many areas when it come to disagreement. See e.g. this: http://blog.sethroberts.net/2012/04/08/gene-linked-to-autism... - Roberts is a professor of psychology, but he wears a statisticians hat in this post. He does this often and in many fields, and more often than not, his review (though well argued) is discarded as "a blogger who disagrees just based on anecdotes and truthiness".

Yes, most criticism is useless, but ...

No, most research is NOT as sound as the researchers themselves believe.


You have provided no support for the idea that MOST scientists don't understand statistics. You link to criticism made about one reporter. I am much more prepared to believe that reporters don't understand statistics than scientists. Still, you have provided an anecdote in support of broad sweeping statements.


> You have provided no support for the idea that MOST scientists don't understand statistics.

That's true, but neither did you (or anyone else ever, for that matter) provide support for the idea that MOST scientists do understand statistics. See how easy it is to discard anything you disagree with?

> I am much more prepared to believe that reporters don't understand statistics than scientists.

That's fine, but (a) it doesn't say anything about how bad scientists are with statistics (only that they are slightly better than reporters, which I tend to agree with), and (b) this is an argument from bias/faith/religion/prejudice, not from science or data. You are just as guilty as anyone you criticize. You might be more right or less right, but you* don't have the moral ground. (* general you).

> Still, you have provided an anecdote in support of broad sweeping statements.

What was that statement of yours about learned people digging into science? So now it is not enough for those people to know what they are talking about, they have to do it in a format you approve of.

I can provide tens more valid criticisms. I charge $200-$1000/hour for my line of work, and I'd be happy to take as much to work for you finding them, when I have some free time.

But I'll throw in a freebie: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1182327/ - though I suspect it will stop at most people's "no true scotsman/scientist" filter...


> There is no universal truth as the author seems to imply.

Indeed not, but to use the coined term, some things are truthier than others. By and large, we can make more informed and better decisions on the "truthiest" truths without mucking up the argument with individual, pointless anecdotes, especially when those anecdotes aren't backed by anything but what simply "happened" to them.


Another thing worth pointing out: how common is it that an actual valid scientific study is posted and someone says "Well this isn't true in my experience"?

More often than not, it's a case where some other article summarizes (most likely in an incorrect way) another study or someone on HN mentions a study, etc.


The author was referring to contrarian anecdotes in reply to statistical data, not someone's opinion.

- He is only arguing that there is universal truth in proxy by arguing that the scientific method is more valuable than anecdotal evidence. If you don't agree with that, you probably disagree with most of HN (pure conjecture, does anyone else here think anecdotal evidence is more valuable than statistical analysis?)

- I agree with you on this point. I don't think we should downvote comments because a fun discussion is what the comments are for, not to try to prove or disprove a study.

- Statistical analysis is not a specialized form of anecdote. That's a stretch.


> He is only arguing that there is universal truth in proxy by arguing that the scientific method is more valuable than anecdotal evidence.

The strawman here is in equating (published) statistical analysis with the scientific method. Of course the scientific method is more valuable, but that's not necessarily relevant.

Please have a look at http://xkcd.com/882/ if you haven't already - what this comic describes is a very valid statistical analysis, according to the "scientific method", (only neglecting base rates like 99% of published papers do).

This is (unfortunately) very commonly practiced in the life sciences, including medicine -- sometimes knowingly but mostly unknowingly. Bad reporting not required for a horrible, long lasting effect on the future.


Scientists' use of statistics is often problematic, but that doesn't mean that its valid to counter statistics with anecdote unless you have some larger argument.


Right. But it is also not valid to bring up statistics unless you can properly qualify their relevance, which is almost never the case. This requirement sets much higher bar for anecdotes than published statistics, when the latter rarely deserves that high bar.

As a result, most arguments about science are invalid from a scientific-method point of view. But the claims brought up -- including anecdotes -- are often interesting and informative.


does anyone else here think anecdotal evidence is more valuable than statistical analysis?

To a certain degree I do. I would go even so far and say that the provider of the contrarian perspective is making a scientific contribution, by pointing out the lacking external validity of the original study. I personally believe that the more interesting phenomenons in science are those incidents, when "things" are acting different than expected. Contrarian anecdotes are most often the best starting places for these phenomenons.




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