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The All-Powerful Personal Anecdote

One of the hallmarks of the fundamentalist mindset is a reliance on anecdotes rather than evidence. They love their stories, especially fake conversations, and they cling to them like they were made of gold. Here’s a classic from young earth creationist Ken Ham:

One supporter of Answers in Genesis was stunned to encounter opposition to the literal six days view. The supporter, identified as J.C. from Boise, Idaho, described that incident to AiG.

“I was at the gym, in the locker room, telling a pastor how great the [Creation] museum was. Pastor Jack asked me, ‘You believe in a literal 6 days?’

“‘Absolutely!’ I replied.

“Then out of nowhere, a man came around the corner who overheard our conversation said, ‘Ken Ham is a piece of c-,'” J.C. recounted. “This man went on to tell me that he has four degrees, studies fossils, bends light, is a Christian, and is a follower of Reasons to Believe and its president Hugh Ross. But out of his same mouth he called a fellow Christian a piece of c-. There was no sign of the humble heart of a Christian.

“I can’t believe that I have fellow brothers and sisters wanting to side with ‘scientists.’

“This has been a real eye-opener for me.”

Except the story is irrelevant entirely. The age of the earth is not determined by whether someone says something mildly insulting, it’s determined by the evidence. But this is a very common form of argument among the fundie faithful.

Comments

  1. says

    “bends light,”

    He must be, as our locally ubiquitous, obnoxious and obtuse Supercarmall guy, Billy Fuccillo (or “Fuckalow”, as I pronounce it) says:

    H-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u–u-u-u-u-u–u–u–u-ge-ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!

  2. pacal says

    Fundies like to see themselves as “humble” and their enemies has full of anger. Of course they simply don’t see that viewing their enemies as instruments of Satan and burning in hell for all eternity after death might be viewed as anything but humble.

    The money quote is this:

    “I can’t believe that I have fellow brothers and sisters wanting to side with ‘scientists.’”

    So much for humility.

  3. Michael Heath says

    It took several seconds to decipher “c-” meant ‘crap’.

    Several weeks ago in meat-world two Tea Bagger Palin-lovin’ Christians were amazed to hear me report that humanity had long ago validated many factual errors in the Bible. The two I provided were that the sun didn’t stop one day on its daily jaunt around the earth, and Noah’s global flood and the saving of all of earth’s then-extant species didn’t happen.

    They claimed to not even know such an effort was possible, let alone accomplished. This is what you get when churches indoctrinate, celebrate and promote faith and belief, and avoid the discovery of objective truth by instead spending one’s resources on rituals and marketing materials which redundantly reaffirm faith while lying to themselves about their desire for truth. A denialism so deep they’re not even aware of what’s going on in much of the world, including the aspect which develops the knowledge to treat their physical infirmities.

  4. Doubting Thomas says

    Maybe he meant that just because Ken Ham is a piece of crap doesn’t prove the earth is not 6000 years old. He’s just saying both could be true. /sarc

  5. says

    Shorter version: “So I, a YEC, was at the gym and a day-age OEC had a pottymouth, so I’m right.”

    This man went on to tell me that he…bends light…

    “Ooo, look at me! I have gravitational mass!” Jerk.

  6. Michael Heath says

    Re the false humility stance:

    I find creationists demonstrate the height of arrogant thinking. They claim to know the truth while being very determined in their ignorance regarding what science has discovered. To the point only a handful of creationists have been observed who even understand what science has found and how they explain what they’ve found, and not a relative handful, but an entire population that amounts to a mere handful. And even then those handful still have to deny, avoid, or misconstrue to defend their belief in creationism, e.g., Kurt Wise and Michael Behe.

    Ironically though true to form, they also overwhelmingly avoid sufficient study of their own creationist arguments.

  7. slc1 says

    Re Michael Heath @ #8

    Totally unfair to compare Wise and Behe. Wise is a YEC who admits that the evidence overwhelming supports an old earth and common descent but he prefers to believe his interpretation of what’s in the bible and categorically rejects both. Behe accepts an old earth and common descent (at least he did in the Dover Trial in response to questions by the defense attorneys) but seems to be determined to find someplace to inject god into the story.

  8. hunter says

    “One supporter of Answers in Genesis was stunned to encounter opposition to the literal six days view. ”

    That tells you all you need to know.

  9. LightningRose says

    I suppose it is factually true that having shit for brains does not fully make a person a piece of crap.

  10. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    I’ve seen it suggested that this was a prank being played on Ham: the “J.C.” initials, the weird “bends light” [what?], and the open denigration of “scientists” without qualification being adduced as evidence.

  11. wscott says

    I actually think the way we skeptics/rationalists ignore the power of anecdotes is a huge mistake. Yes, as a method of determining what’s true and what’s not, anecdotes are crap. But as a means of convincing others, anecdotes are extremely useful. Especially when dealing with the 90+ percent of humanity that are not scientists, a few well-chosen anecdotes are far more persuasive to most people than reams of dry, boring data. To pretend otherwise is to deny thousands of years of accumulated evidence of human nature (both anecdotal and laboratory). We can bemoan this fact all we want, but I don’t see that changing in society as a whole anytime soon.

    Anecdotes are also absolutely invaluable when you’re trying to establish a social narrative, which is what Ham is doing in the example. In this case, Ham’s narrative is “You’re either with us or you’re against us.” Ironically this particular anecdote actually undercuts his point, and would better serve a skeptical counter-narrative along the lines of “Many if not most of the people who believe in evolution are in fact Christians; it’s not some atheist conspiracy.”

    So I think it’s well past time that we started reclaiming anecdotes as a means of communicating with the general public. Think of anecdotes as the illustrations in a book: they’re not a substitute for the text (ie – data), but when well-chosen they help grab the reader’s attention and draw the discussion to highlight key points.

  12. lldayo says

    @1
    Now why’d you have to go and ruin it for me! I was having all kinds of fun trying to figure out what c- could possibly stand for :D

  13. says

    #13

    So I think it’s well past time that we started reclaiming anecdotes as a means of communicating with the general public. Think of anecdotes as the illustrations in a book: they’re not a substitute for the text (ie – data), but when well-chosen they help grab the reader’s attention and draw the discussion to highlight key points.

    I don’t think anyone is opposed to analogies, examples and hypothetical. I think it’s silly to use anecdotes, still. After all, you know what could really help our cause? If we lied, cooked the books, and used all assortments of false advertising. That would work too.

    Oddly, we’re not doing that. If anecdotes are crap in terms of establishing truth, then they’re crap. We have better tools that take more into account than how many “converts” we get.

  14. says

    But you see, only bad people believe that the Earth is older than 6000 years, therefore, the anecdote proves itself true because the OEC called Ken Ham mean things.

    This is how their minds work: Evidence is irrelevant. You must accept the YEC line or you’re a bad person.

  15. says

    “I was at the gym, in the locker room, telling a pastor how great the [Creation] museum was. Pastor Jack asked me …”

    Up to that point I was thinking: “Worst Penthouse Forum letter ever.”

  16. mishcakes says

    “He said a bad word! He said a bad word! DAAAAADDDDYYYY!”

    Fundie conversation is like playground banter with a few bigger words thrown in.

  17. says

    wscott, I agree with you. Of course we shouldn’t ever lose sight of the vast gulf between anecdote and data, but when in Rome, speak Latin. When you’re dealing with – and trying to slip a fingernail underneath – someone who weights anecdotes so highly, a few well-chosen anecdotes for “our side” might just help you get that fingernail in.

    Call it our own Wedge Strategy. Engage them with an engaging story, then slip a few facts in as well. Before they know it, they’ll be intrigued enough to find out a little more, rather than just dismiss our dry, boring factoids out of hand.

  18. Sastra says

    The age of the earth is not determined by whether someone says something mildly insulting, it’s determined by the evidence. But this is a very common form of argument among the fundie faithful.

    A very common form of argument among the fundie faithful? This “the side that’s mean is always factually wrong” trope is a very common form of argument in general, but is I think particularly virulent in ALL religions and religious thinking. Consider the culturally familiar caricature of the “angry atheist,” militant, shrill, and no doubt resentful over past hurts perpetrated by some bad church-goers or a God who failed to measure up to self-inflated personal demands. From what I can tell virtually every anecdote explicitly about an atheist will be one where the atheist shows themselves to be mean in some way. And thus wrong: they blocked faith ON PURPOSE.

    You don’t just get this with fundamentalists. If anything, I think the more liberal believers — Christian, pagan, or spiritual — double-down on the negative character traits in order to distance themselves from charges of being insufficiently God-infused. No, they’re not like atheists at all because they don’t act like an atheist would. They’re nice.

  19. kermit. says

    Ken Ham is a piece of cake?

    Regarding “bends light” – I have not heard this phrase before, but I suspect it is Fundie slang for astronomy. Which are the three sciences that refute are disproven by Young Earth Creationism (besides all of them, that is)? Geology, biology, and astronomy. So this fella is a biologist and an astronomer?

    Regarding Fundamentalist humility. Yes, my Southern Baptist grandpa would tell me that he knew what God wanted by reading the bible. Other denominations interpreted it, but Southern Baptists like him just read it as it is. He couldn’t be wrong, because he was interpreting it, but he was just a humble speck to God, no more than a sparrow. But also infallible, and was going to be among God’s favored slaves spending eternity telling God how wonderful he was, and taking breaks to enjoy watching our eternal torture.

  20. Larry says

    I assumed that “bending light” is some kind of fundie dog whistle for sorcery. or magic. Which, as you know, is what fundies believe science to be. Hell, they believe adding two numbers together without moving your lips to be a sign of satan’s black arts.

  21. jnorris says

    A Fundie finally ventures out into the world and while talking very manly with another naked guy (but not gay or anything, see) runs straight into Reality, gets slapped about the head a bit and hears dirty words.

  22. wscott says

    @ Jasper #15: Your argument is essentially: “Hammers are crap for tightening screws, and some people occasionally use hammers to hit other people, therefore we should never use hammers.” But just because a tool is ill-suited to one type of work doesn’t mean it isn’t useful, or even essential, for other tasks.

    Yes, anecdotes are a lousy tool for evaluating evidence when trying to figure out how the world works. But I’m talking about science communication, not research. And anecdotes are perhaps the most effective tool we have for conveying information, especially to non-technical audiences.* They go beyond just saying “Look, here’s a shiny data point!” to tie together facts & examples into a personal narrative that other people can care about. We are a story-telling species; that is the primary way we share information and experiences. Assuming the general public will be persuaded by – or even pay much attention to – your boring impersonal data is committing the Straw Vulcan fallacy of assuming that other people always act rationally. (And incidentally if that strategy was working, we wouldn’t need to have this conversation.)

    Yes, some people use anecdotes to lie. Some people lie with statistics too – does that mean we shouldn’t use statistics? Obviously not. When people use an anecdote that is based on bad/false data, they should be called out for it. But that doesn’t mean there’s anything shady or deceptive about using anecdotes to illustrate good data and get people interested in real facts.

    And to restate once again: none of this is a substitute for data, research and all that other good stuff.

    * I’m assuming you are in fact interested in addressing the pathetic scientific ignorance in our culture, so that voters and the politicians they elect can make informed decisions. If you’re content to sit in your cubicle and just know that you have the right answers, go for it.

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