April Fool in Harlow: Anecdote Fishing in Harlow

April, 1, 2013 | 8 Comments


  1. Billiam James’ poster is a thing of beauty and should be plastered to the walls of every medical school – not to mention the counters of every drugstore where you and I line up to buy GSK’s latest products! It reminded me of something the great Clarence Darrow wrote in the introduction to his pamphlet Crime and Criminals, about using information “responsibly.” (Darrow, a famous criminal lawyer, believed that massive social inequality, not poor folks’ wickedness, was at the root of most crime):

    “This address is a stenographic report of a talk made to the prisoners in the Chicago jail. Some of my good friends have insisted that while my theories are true, I should not have given them to the inmates of a jail.

    “Realizing the force of the suggestion that the truth should not be spoken to all people, I have caused these remarks to be printed on rather good paper and in a somewhat expensive form. In this way the truth does not become cheap and vulgar, and is only placed before those whose intelligence and affluence will prevent their being influenced by it.”

    • Thanks Johanna! Your reference to Clarence Darrow is spot on! Because like the prison masters of his day, GSK and the Regulators agree with the theory of open science, but in practice argue that it is inappropriate to share the truth (all clinical trial data) with the prisoners (the patients!).

  2. GSK’s position on data sharing reminds me of President Nixon’s position on sharing the White House secret tape recordings (which were made without informed consent). Congress demanded the tapes. Nixon refused for as long as possible, then handed over a thoroughly bowdlerized set of *transcripts* of the tapes instead of the actual tapes. Nixon won the battle but lost the war.

    GSK will never willingly allow free access to trial data. Nor will any other company of that size. Legislation is needed, and even then, we have to hope large amounts of data don’t inexplicably go “missing.”

  3. Quite extra-ordinarily (close to spooky) at much the same time as this post went up, the following comment was posted on Not So Bad Pharma. This is a cross-posting. There is a follow-up comment on Not So Bad Pharma.

    From Clifford Miller:

    Hello David,

    This is one of those instances where a correction is likely to be most welcomed by the corrected.


    The correction original quotation is “the plural of anecdote is data”.

    I will not bore you with the details but that is also evidentially correct and it is based on the identical mechanism we use for proof in science [and in rechallenge and in dechallenge – which you know all about].

    So where is the correct quote recorded?

    ‘Raymond Wolfinger’s brilliant aphorism “the plural of anecdote is data” never inspired a better or more skilled researcher’ Nelson W. Polsby PS, Vol. 17, No. 4. (Autumn, 1984), pp. 778-781. Pg. > 779.

    This is confirmed in an exchange of emails between Wolfinger and Fred Shapiro, the Editor of The Yale Book of Quotations, The Oxford Dictionary of American Legal Quotations, and others in a linguistlist.org listserv post by Shapiro – you can click on the listserv link and look it up yourself:-


    Subject: Re: “Plural of anecdote is data” (Ray Wolfinger)
    From: Fred Shapiro
    Reply-To: American Dialect Society
    Date: Tue, 6 Jul 2004 23:21:27 -0400
    Content-Type: TEXT/PLAIN
    Parts/Attachments TEXT/PLAIN (34 lines)

    On Tue, 6 Jul 2004 [log in to unmask] wrote:

    > Nelson W. Polsby PS, Vol. 17, No. 4. (Autumn, 1984), pp. 778-781. Pg.
    > 779: Raymond Wolfinger’s brilliant aphorism “the plural of anecdote is
    > data” never inspired a better or more skilled researcher.

    I e-mailed Wolfinger last year and got the following response from him:

    “I said ‘The plural of anecdote is data’ some time in the 1969-70 academic
    year while teaching a graduate seminar at Stanford. The occasion was a
    student’s dismissal of a simple factual statement–by another student or
    me–as a mere anecdote. The quotation was my rejoinder.
    Since then I have missed few opportunities to quote myself. The only
    appearance in print that I can remember is Nelson Polsby’s accurate
    quotation and attribution in an article in PS: Political Science and
    Politics in 1993; I believe it was in the first issue of the year.”

    I also e-mailed Polsby, who didn’t know of any early printed occurrences.

    What is interesting about this saying is that it seems to have morphed
    into its opposite — “Data is not the plural of anecdote” — in some
    people’s minds. Mark Mandel used it in this opposite sense in a private
    e-mail to me, for example.

    Fred Shapiro

    Fred R. Shapiro Editor
    Associate Librarian for Collections and YALE DICTIONARY OF QUOTATIONS
    Access and Lecturer in Legal Research Yale University Press,
    Yale Law School forthcoming
    e-mail: [log in to unmask] http://quotationdictionary.com

  4. David,

    Oops – posted this over on “Not So Bad Pharma” in relation to “anecdotal” but guess it should go here – [as your post above indicates]:

    “If you have not already seen it, you might enjoy this paper by a clinical epidemiologist of good standing:

    “In Defense of Case Reports and Case Series” – Jan P. Vandenbroucke, MD, PhD


    And why should we need to call any kind of epidemiologist a “clinical” one? Surely epidemiology is dependent upon evidence from individual clinical cases to make the assessment necessary to establish causation – in other words – from case series. All else is merely statistics. Medicine seems to have lost sight of how causation is established in complex biological systems – and in epidemiology.

    Rechallenge is the most extreme example of case series – a case series of one. So if someone tells you about a rechallenge, EBMers say we should place no store on it as “anecdotal” – but if it is reported in writing and well documented – it is not. So where is the logic of that? The only difference is of credibility for third parties – about the reliability of the report – and if for an anecdotal report one can establish credibility/reliability then the anecdotal report is just as much proof as the written one.

    So when a multiplicity of reports arise all telling much the same story independently – a case series – we cannot ignore it – especially because regularity is being demonstrated – the most essential element of any form of scientific evidence.

    So all those reports of individuals who claimed they could not come off Seroxat/Paxil are more than mere data – that is case series evidence of addictiveness – and MHRA just ignored that “inconvenient” evidence for years.

    “Anecdotal” evidence covers all human observations, scientific and otherwise. If a “scientist” tells you what he has observed – that we are told by EBMers is “anecdotal” and to be dismissed – but if it is written down in his lab book it is not. So the only difference is one of belief in the reliability of the account, so if the reliability of the account can be established then there is no reason not to consider “anecdotal” evidence in medicine.

    If all science were to be based upon “I cannot be bothered to check, so I am going to ignore it”, as EBM appears to be with its evidentially peculiar and sadly misconceived hierarchy of evidence – there would be no science.

    If C.T.R. Wilson was not bothered to follow up on and ignored those odd unexpected tracks in the saturated vapour in his weather experiment – one wholly unrelated to particle physics – we may not have had the invention of the Cloud Chamber – a bit of a breakthrough in particle physics.

    So how much are we missing in medicine as a result of EBMer blindness? A great deal.”

  5. Have discoveries made in quantum physics generated any dialogue or insights within the practice of evidence-based medicine? I perhaps unnaturally assumed that the discovery of the impact of the observer on the observed might introduce caution with regard to interpreting any scientific data, including medicine trials where, as you note, the illness and the drug may produce the same effects.

    We tend to find what we are looking for. All of us. Which reveals another collusion. Not only do drug companies and unwitting doctors find what they are looking for, but so do those of us, individuals and families, who are desperately seeking quick fixes for our pain and evidence that promises these fixes exist.

    Unfortunately, it’s hard to gather and share anecdotal evidence in 7 minutes of patient contact time…

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