Anecdotal at [its] Best
Hello Grimericans! I have a confession to make. And while it doesn’t really pain me to admit it, this truth about me and my way of thinking has the power to cast doubt on my person; as a person. A logical thinking one, anyway. It is the way I approach anecdotal stories in relation to “paranormal” events. I love them. I thrive off of them if I’m being honest. Nothing keeps me more interested in the strange, weird and otherworldly than the stories of the people who have claimed to have witnessed them. Now the skeptic in me, and in many of you, obviously find this way of thinking as a conflict of interest when one is trying to put their logical, “good” skeptic foot forward. But how harmful is it to indulge in the anecdotes of the supernatural and the like? If one keeps their little ‘s’ skeptic cap on whilst remaining open-minded when this data is learned, then isn’t that how the scientific method is supposed to be approached? With one foot in skepticism and one in the unknown? Moreover, is anecdotal data really worthless? By the way, for the sake of brevity, I will refer to it as anecdotal data as opposed to the more commonly used anecdotal evidence. Because that is really what it is: data, after all. As I’ve pointed out before, the word evidence denotes that the burden of proof is lifted. If that was the case, then it wouldn’t be anecdotal. Not to get too tied up in semantics, but like I said, for the sake of brevity. So let’s strap in and examine some anecdotal data at its best.
Whoa, whoa… Hold on a second…
Now I know most of you are probably critically thinking, skeptically minded individuals who won’t just accept any story without solid proof, or at least strong data, to at least cast a shadow of possibility on someone’s claims. And given the nature of anecdotes and what some “big S Skeptics” might rightfully point out that most anecdotal evidence is cherry-picked, you might not want to read what this article is about. I mean, the title of this post is “Anecdotal Evidence at [it’s] Best”. But before you hand in that skeptic card, please remember the importance of anecdotal data in regards to science. Hell, the importance of it in everyday life. Humans have ALWAYS used anecdotal data as a starting point to a clear answer. Sometimes it takes longer than other times and more than likely, not everyone will agree with the result. I’m not saying that EVERY important discovery was the result of some chestnut of personal experience or observation, but a lot have. Things like…
Bioelectricity and the Battery
Eighteenth century biologist, physicist and physician Luigi Galvani was dissecting a frog on a table that was previously used for experiments with static electricity. To his surprise, he noticed that when he touched a brass hook that held the frog’s leg with his metal scalpel that had acquired a charge, the muscle contracted and probably made him jump (Galvani, not the frog). This made him raise an eyebrow (and probably change his pants) and he investigated further. He then reported that he believed he had discovered what he called animal electricity. He thought it was a life force within the muscles of the animal. A contemporary of his, Allesandro Volta, was able to reproduce Galvani’s results but remained skeptical of his explanation. He proposed the resulting contraction what due to the contact of the two metals and external electricity and the frog’s muscle was only a detector or the small differences of the external source. To try to prove this, he invented the first true battery, known as the Voltaic Pile, to aide in the experimentation to disprove Galvani’s claims. So, if you’re reading this on a mobile device, that battery that powers it is one of the side results of what started out as anecdotal evidence… just saying. While Galvani was eventually proven wrong, it was his raised eyebrow that started humans down the path of what is now known as electrochemistry. The Voltaic Pile also led to accelerated discoveries such as the electrical decomposition of h2o into hydrogen and oxygen, as well as the isolation of the seven chemical elements including calcium, potassium and magnesium by Humphry Davy. Volta was such a nice guy, he still named that process of electricity produced by a chemical reaction after Galvini, galvanism.
The Microwave Oven
One day in 1945, American born engineer Percy Spencer was building magnetrons for Raytheon and was standing in front of a live radar set when he noticed that a candy bar in his pocket had melted. After getting over the loss of his mid-day snack, he began a mission to figure out was caused the premature end of his favorite munchies and vowed revenge. Okay, the revenge might be a little exaggerated. Just making sure you’re still paying attention. And while he wasn’t the first to notice the effects of microwaves on food, he was the first to investigate further. The result of that investigation being the microwave oven and all of your favorite, “no time to cook a real meal’ meals that you’ve come to love. Percy Spencer, you’re my hero..
Yep. Evolution. It was the anecdotal observations of Charles Darwin that led him down the path of discovery of one of the greatest revelations in history. I think everyone is well versed on this topic that I don’t have to cover it in detail. But I would be remise if I didn’t mention that when Darwin first published his theory in his book “On the Origin of Species” he was met with overwhelming rejection from the scientific community. Evolution not good enough for ya’? How about…
Okay, this is an anecdotal story of an anecdotal story. A young Sir Issac Newton was resting under an apple tree when the winds of fate blew an apple down and struck the young genius on his crown. It was this event that made Newton ponder and conceive the idea of gravity. Or some variation of that story. The tale has long been called apocryphal. Fortunately, a manuscript by William Stukeley that would later go on to become a biography on the apple catching scientist, was found hidden away in the archives of the London’s Royal Society. The story about the apple was relayed to Stukeley by Newton himself and it follows as such:
“After dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden and drank thea, under the shade of some apple trees…he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. It was occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in contemplative mood. Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground, thought he to himself…”
So the apple story was true. Well, mostly. The point is, anecdotal data sparks the imagination and can start the process of inquiry. Imagine where we’d be as a culture if we never acted on those inspirations. And while I do think it’s important to remain skeptical, I also believe it’s just as important to imagine. I think some forget that latter part. Here is a link to an article that I found very useful and insightful about the importance of anecdotal data. They provide a huge selection of links from Wikipedia that shows historical examples of serendipity that show the importance of anecdotal data. In case you don’t want to click the linky-link, I took the time to copy and paste them below. I will provide a quote from the article for those who feel like this post was long enough and don’t feel like reading any more:
“The most important statement a scientist can make is, ‘Huh, that doesn’t make sense. That shouldn’t have happened.'”
Well that’s it for me Grimericans. Stay classy.
- The German chemist Friedrich August Kekulé von Stradonitz having a reverie of Ourobouros, a snake forming a circle, leading to his solution of the closed chemical structure of cyclic compounds, such as benzene.
- Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (or LSD) by Albert Hofmann, who found this potent hallucinogen while trying to find medically useful derivatives in ergot, a fungus growing on wheat.
- Gelignite by Alfred Nobel, when he accidentally mixed collodium (gun cotton) withnitroglycerin
- Polymethylene by Hans von Pechmann, who prepared it by accident in 1898 while heatingdiazomethane
- Low density polyethylene by Eric Fawcett and Reginald Gibson at the ICI works in Northwich, England. It was the first industrially practical polyethylene synthesis and was discovered (again by accident) in 1933
- Silly Putty by James Wright, on the way to solving another problem: finding a rubber substitute for the United States during World War II.
- Chemical synthesis of urea, by Friedrich Woehler. He was attempting to produce ammonium cyanate by mixing potassium cyanate and ammonium chloride and got urea, the first organic chemical to be synthesised, often called the ‘Last Nail’ of the coffin of the Élan vitalTheory
- Pittacal, the first synthetic dyestuff, by Carl Ludwig Reichenbach. The dark blue dye appeared on wooden posts painted with creosote to drive away dogs who urinated on them.
- Mauve, the first aniline dye, by William Henry Perkin. At the age of 18, he was attempting to create artificial quinine. An unexpected residue caught his eye, which turned out to be the first aniline dye—specifically, mauveine, sometimes called aniline purple.
- Racemization, by Louis Pasteur. While investigating the properties of sodium ammonium tartrate he was able to separate for the first time the two optical isomers of the salt. His luck was twofold: it is the only racemate salt to have this property, and the room temperature that day was slightly below the point of separation.
- Teflon, by Roy J. Plunkett, who was trying to develop a new gas for refrigeration and got a slick substance instead, which was used first for lubrication of machine parts
- Cyanoacrylate-based Superglue (a.k.a. Krazy Glue) was accidentally twice discovered by Dr.Harry Coover, first when he was developing a clear plastic for gunsights and later, when he was trying to develop a heat-resistant polymer for jet canopies.
- Scotchgard, is a 3M brand of products used to protect fabric, furniture, and carpets fromstains, was discovered accidentally in 1953 by Patsy Sherman. One of the compounds she was investigating as a rubber material that wouldn’t deteriorate when in contact with aircraft fuel spilled onto a tennis shoe and would not wash out; she then considered the spill as a protectant against spills.
- Cellophane, a thin, transparent sheet made of regenerated cellulose, was developed in 1908 by Swiss chemist Jacques Brandenberger, as a material for covering stain-proof tablecloth.
- The chemical element helium. British chemist William Ramsay isolated helium while looking for argon but, after separating nitrogen and oxygen from the gas liberated by sulfuric acid, noticed a bright-yellow spectral line that matched the D3 line observed in the spectrum of theSun.
- The chemical element Iodine was discovered by Bernard Courtois in 1811, when he was trying to remove residues with strong acid from the bottom of his saltpeter production plant which used seaweed ashes as a prime material.
- Polycarbonates, a kind of clear hard plastic
- The synthetic polymer celluloid was discovered by British chemist and metallurgist Alexander Parkes in 1856, after observing that a solid residue remained after evaporation of the solventfrom photographic collodion. Celluloid can be described as the first plastic used for making solid objects (the first ones being billiard balls, substituting for expensive ivory).
- Rayon, the first synthetic silk, was discovered by French chemist Hilaire de Chardonnet, an assistant to Louis Pasteur. He spilled a bottle of collodion and found later that he could draw thin strands from the evaporated viscous liquid.
- The possibility of synthesizing indigo, a natural dye extracted from a plant with the same name, was discovered by a chemist named Sapper who was heating coal tar when he accidentally broke a thermometer whose mercury content acted as a catalyst to producephthalic anhydride, which could readily be converted into indigo.
- The dye monastral blue was discovered in 1928 in Scotland, when chemist A. G. Dandridgeheated a mixture of chemicals at high temperature in a sealed iron container. The iron of the container reacted with the mixture, producing some pigments called phthalocyanines. By substituting copper for iron he produced an even better pigment called ‘monastral blue’, which became the basis for many new coloring materials for paints, lacquers and printing inks.
- Acesulfame, an artificial sweetener, was discovered accidentally in 1967 by Karl Claus atHoechst AG.
- Another sweetener, cyclamate, was discovered by graduate student Michael Sveda, when he smoked a cigarette accidentally contaminated with a compound he had recently synthesized.
- Aspartame (NutraSweet) was accidentally discovered by G.D. Searle & Company chemist James M. Schlatter, who was trying to develop a test for an anti-ulcer drug.
- Saccharin was accidentally discovered during research on coal tar derivatives.
- Saran (plastic) was discovered when Ralph Wiley had trouble washing beakers used in development of a dry cleaning product. It was soon used to make plastic wrap.
- A new blue pigment with almost perfect properties was discovered accidentally by scientists at Oregon State University after heating manganese oxide.
- Penicillin by Alexander Fleming. He failed to disinfect cultures of bacteria when leaving for his vacations, only to find them contaminated with Penicillium molds, which killed the bacteria. However, he had previously done extensive research into antibacterial substances.
- The psychedelic effects of LSD by Albert Hofmann. A chemist, he unintentionally absorbed a small amount of it upon investigating its properties, and had the first acid trip in history, while cycling to his home in Switzerland; this is commemorated among LSD users annually as Bicycle Day.
- 5-fluorouracil’s therapeutic action on actinic keratosis, was initially investigated for its anti-cancer actions
- Minoxidil‘s action on baldness; originally it was an oral agent for treating hypertension. It was observed that bald patients treated with it grew hair too.
- Viagra (sildenafil citrate), an anti-impotence drug. It was initially studied for use inhypertension and angina pectoris. Phase I clinical trials under the direction of Ian Osterlohsuggested that the drug had little effect on angina, but that it could induce marked penileerections.
- Retin-A anti-wrinkle action. It was a vitamin A derivative first used for treating acne. The accidental result in some older people was a reduction of wrinkles on the face
- The libido-enhancing effect of l-dopa, a drug used for treating Parkinson’s disease. Older patients in a sanatorium had their long-lost interest in sex suddenly revived.
- The first anti-psychotic drug, chlorpromazine, was discovered by French pharmacologistHenri Laborit. He wanted to add an anti-histaminic to a pharmacological combination to prevent surgical shock and noticed that patients treated with it were unusually calm before the operation.
- The anti-cancer drug cisplatin was discovered by Barnett Rosenberg. He wanted to explore what he thought was an inhibitory effect of an electric field on the growth of bacteria. It was rather due to an electrolysis product of the platinum electrode he was using.
- The anesthetic nitrous oxide (laughing gas). Initially well known for inducing altered behavior (hilarity), its properties were discovered when British chemist Humphry Davytested the gas on himself and some of his friends, and soon realised that nitrous oxide considerably dulled the sensation of pain, even if the inhaler was still semi-conscious.
- Mustine – a derivative of mustard gas (a chemical weapon), used for the treatment of some forms of cancer. In 1943, physicians noted that the white cell counts of US soldiers, accidentally exposed when a cache of mustard gas shells were bombed in Bari, Italy, decreased, and mustard gas was investigated as a therapy for Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
- Prontosil, an antibiotic of the sulfa group was an azo dye. German chemists at Bayer had the wrong idea that selective chemical stains of bacteria would show specific antibacterial activity. Prontosil had it, but in fact it was due to another substance metabolised from it in the body, sulfanilimide.
Medicine and biology
- Bioelectricity, by Luigi Galvani. He was dissecting a frog at a table where he had been conducting experiments with static electricity. His assistant touched an exposed sciatic nerveof the frog with a metal scalpel which had picked up a charge, provoking a musclecontraction.
- Neural control of blood vessels, by Claude Bernard
- Anaphylaxis, by Charles Richet. When he tried to reuse dogs that had previously shownallergic reactions to sea anemone toxin, the reactions developed much faster and were more severe the second time.
- The role of the pancreas in glucose metabolism, by Oskar Minkowski. Dogs that had theirpancreas removed for an unrelated physiological investigation urinated profusely; the urine also attracted flies, signaling its high glucose content.
- Coronary catheterization was discovered as a method when a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic accidentally injected radiocontrast into the coronary artery instead of the left ventricle.
- The mydriatic effects of belladonna extracts, by Friedrich Ferdinand Runge
- Interferon, an antiviral factor, was discovered accidentally by two Japanese virologists, Yasu-ichi Nagano and Yasuhiko Kojima while trying to develop an improved vaccine for smallpox.
- The hormone melatonin was discovered in 1917 when it was shown that extract of bovine pineal glands lightened frog skin. In 1958 its chemical structure was defined by Aaron B. Lerner and in the mid-70s it was demonstrated that also in humans the production of melatonin exhibits and influences a circadian rhythm.
Physics and astronomy
- The quite possibly apocryphal story of Archimedes‘ prototypical cry of Eureka when he realised in the bathtub that a body’s displacement water allowed him to measure the weight-to-volume ratio of any irregularly shaped body, such as a gold crown.
- Isaac Newton‘s famed apple falling from a tree, supposedly leading to his musings about the nature of gravitation.
- Discovery of the planet Uranus by William Herschel. Herschel was looking for comets, and initially identified Uranus as a comet until he noticed the circularity of its orbit and its distance and suggested that it was a planet, the first one discovered since antiquity.
- Infrared radiation, again by William Herschel, while investigating the temperature differences between different colors of visible light by dispersing sunlight into a spectrumusing a glass prism. He put thermometers into the different visible colors where he expected a temperature increase, and one as a control to measure the ambient temperature in the dark region beyond the red end of the spectrum. The thermometer beyond the red unexpectedly showed a higher temperature than the others, showing that there was non-visible radiation beyond the red end of the visible spectrum.
- The thermoelectric effect was discovered accidentally by Estonian physicist Thomas Seebeck in 1821, who found that a voltage developed between the two ends of a metal bar when it was submitted to a difference of temperature.
- Electromagnetism, by Hans Christian Ørsted. While he was setting up his materials for a lecture, he noticed a compass needle deflecting from magnetic north when the electric current from the battery he was using was switched on and off.
- Radioactivity, by Henri Becquerel. While trying to investigate phosphorescent materials using photographic plates, he stumbled upon uranium.
- X rays, by Wilhelm Roentgen. Interested in investigating cathodic ray tubes, he noted that some fluorescent papers in his lab were illuminated at a distance although his apparatus had an opaque cover
- S. N. Bose discovered Bose-Einstein statistics when a mathematical error surprisingly explained anomalous data.
- The first demonstration of wave–particle duality during the Davisson–Germer experimentat Bell Labs after a leak in the vacuum system and attempts to recover from it unknowingly altered the crystal structure of the nickel target and led to the accidental experimental confirmation of the de Broglie hypothesis. Davisson went on to share the 1937 Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery.
- Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, by Arno A. Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson. What they thought was excess thermal noise in their antenna at Bell Labs was due to the CMBR.
- Cosmic gamma-ray bursts were discovered in the late 1960s by the US Vela satellites, which were built to detect nuclear tests in the Soviet Union
- The rings of Uranus were discovered by astronomers James L. Elliot, Edward W. Dunham, and Douglas J. Mink on March 10, 1977. They planned to use the occultation of the star SAO 158687 by Uranus to study the planet’s atmosphere, but found that the star disappeared briefly from view five times both before and after it was eclipsed by the planet. They deduced that a system of narrow rings was present.
- Pluto‘s moon Charon was discovered by US astronomer James Christy in 1978. He was going to discard what he thought was a defective photographic plate of Pluto, when his Star Scanmachine broke down. While it was being repaired he had time to study the plate again and discovered others in the archives with the same “defect” (a bulge in the planet’s image which was actually a large moon).
- High-temperature superconductivity was discovered serendipitously by physicists Johannes Georg Bednorz and Karl Alexander Müller, ironically when they were searching for a material that would be a perfect electrical insulator (nonconducting). They won the 1987 Nobel Prize in Physics.
- Metallic hydrogen was found accidentally in March 1996 by a group of scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, after a 60-year search.
- A new method to create black silicon was developed in the lab of Eric Mazur.
- Discovery of the principle behind inkjet printers by a Canon engineer. After putting his hotsoldering iron by accident on his pen, ink was ejected from the pen’s point a few moments later.
- Vulcanization of rubber, by Charles Goodyear. He accidentally left a piece of rubber mixture with sulfur on a hot plate, and produced vulcanized rubber
- Safety glass, by French scientist Edouard Benedictus. In 1903 he accidentally knocked a glass flask to the floor and observed that the broken pieces were held together by a liquid plasticthat had evaporated and formed a thin film inside the flask.
- Corn flakes and wheat flakes (Wheaties) were accidentally discovered by the Kelloggs brothers in 1898, when they left cooked wheat unattended for a day and tried to roll the mass, obtaining a flaky material instead of a sheet.
- The microwave oven was invented by Percy Spencer while testing a magnetron for radar sets at Raytheon, he noticed that a peanut candy bar in his pocket had melted when exposed to radar waves.
- Pyroceram (used to make Corningware, among other things) was invented by S. Donald Stookey, a chemist working for the Corning company, who noticed crystallization in an improperly cooled batch of tinted glass.
- The Slinky was invented by US Navy engineer Richard T. James after he accidentally knocked a torsion spring off his work table and observed its unique motion.
- Arthur Fry happened to attend a 3M college’s seminar on a new “low-tack” adhesive and, wanting to anchor his bookmarks in his hymnal at church, went on to invent Post-It Notes.
- The chocolate chip cookie was invented through serendipity. Chocolate chip cookies were invented by Ruth Wakefield when she attempted to make chocolate drop cookies. She did not have the required chocolate so she broke up a candy bar and placed the chunks into the cookie mix. These chunks later morphed into what is now known as chocolate chip cookies.