THE PLURAL OF ANECDOTE
I am not a scientist, but like anyone with any degree of education, I took science classes and learned about the scientific method. As I recall, the process begins with a step called “observation.” Based on observations, the inquirer forms questions and then a hypothesis. Then experiments are conducted to prove or disprove the hypothesis. Until the hypothesis is proven or disproved, further observations, including observations resulting from the experiments, may be made that may alter the hypothesis, leading to further experimentation. Anecdotes are observations.
Any rational person must accept that anecdotal data cannot stand as evidence to support a failed hypothesis (i.e., a hypothesis that has been definitively refuted). But the hypothesis that thimerosal plays a role in the development of genetically susceptible children has not yet been proven or disproved. The absurd notion that the epidemiological studies cited by the Institute of Medicine’s 2004 report disprove the thimerosal/autism hypothesis inflates the importance of epidemiology in determining biological causation. Moreover, the flawed methodology of those epidemiological studies renders them practically useless for the inquiry.
The late Carl Sagan coined a corollary to the plural-of-anecdote maxim: The absence of evidence does not mean the evidence of absence. The fact that the thimerosal/autism hypothesis not yet been proven means only that the process prescribed by the scientific method is ongoing. Until conclusions are made with some reasonable degree of certainty, my son and all the other anecdotes are still relevant.