Aug 25, 2009

Research: The construction of anecdotal evidence

A recent article in the Science, Technology and Human Values titled Experts and Anecdotes
The Role of ‘‘Anecdotal Evidence’’ in Public Scientific Controversies
looks at how the notion of anecdotal evidence is constructed in public controversies. The analysis is informed by the concepts of boundary work, lay knoweldge, and expertise.

The main argument is that scientists perform boundary work, i.e., they define the boundaries of what can be considered science and legitimate knowledge. Other actors, such as activists or affected people, challenge the boundaries by re-framing the risk in terms of their particular social conditions. The authors try to show how nonexpert claims in the cases of mobile phones and MMR controversies were ignored, welcomed, or altered during the interactions of experts and officials. To put it simply, nonexperts said that anecdotal evidence is important, but experts dismissed it until publicly expressed dissatisfaction reached a certain point.

The argument of the paper is not convincing. It seems that the authors used the concepts of boundary work and lay knowledge as assumptions that defined their conclusions. In other words, the roles of experts and nonexperts have initially been assumed to be the way they were described afterwards. In such case it's really difficult to find anything less obvious that the expert - layperson divide about the meaning of science and evidence. The questions that should be asked here are "Why do we need to challenge the existing conceptualizations of evidence?", "Why anecdotal evidence should be considered a valid kind of evidence?", and "Can the public legitimize their concerns by making experts accept anecdotal evidence or should they construct their legitimacy by other means?"

Showing that something is constructed (e.g., the boundaries of science) is not enough. It is also necessary to show why showing the constructive character is necessary and why the construction needs to be challenged. I also think that large agents such as the mobile phone industry and the producers of vaccines should have been included in the analysis. The tension is not only between experts and non-experts, it is also among different interests of a variety of agents.