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I've lurked here quite a bit and have read Is anecdotal evidence sufficient for answers?. I've only answered one question, and I'm still not sure if my answer is appropriate for the site. So I'm asking here. Is this answer acceptable? Can you tell if you're dreaming by pinching yourself?

EDIT: There is another question out there that I would like to answer in much the same way. https://skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/19179/can-someone-see-into-the-future-through-dreams. I have a story that I would like to share. Like many people I have had experiences during which I could just swear that I had seen a scene in life in a recent dream. But, I'm a skeptic and can usually dismiss those thoughts as coincidence. I have one experience though that can't just be dismissed that easily. One thing that sets this experience apart is that I found the dream odd and shared it with my husband. It was later that we both were startled when a very specific detail "came true". This particular incident was decades ago, but it gives me chills to this day. Would a story like that be an appropriate "answer"? It's too long for "comments".

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Your answers aren't good. The problem with anecdotal evidence is that they can't give us information about the rule, how can we know that this exact incident isn't the really improbable extreme case.

The more serious problem with your answers is that they are not documented, so we can't really know if what you describe happen, how can we know and check that you infact had a dream with that specific detail, and it came true. How can we know that you dreamt about going to the toilet in night during the night. In one word, we can't.

An answer can be based on an anecdotal evidence, but it must be a well documented evidence. For example, a question asking

Can this and this happen?

Can be answered by

It did happen at least once, this scientific article/movie/credible first hand account depicts a very similar case to what you describe...

A real example is the question Can a metal plate in the head stop a bullet?, the accepted answer for which is

There is a documented case of a soldier who survived a bullet from a North Korean rifle at point blank range thanks to a metal plate in his head.

What you propose isn't this. Both cases are not documented and we have no way to verify their authenticity.

  • One difficulty that I'm still having is with "credible first hand account". If I wrote an article about breaking the cycle of bedwetting, and the article was then published in Parenting Magazine, would that make my account more credible? In the second example, I mention my husband because he could confirm the relating of the dream before the events of life. – Jolenealaska Mar 6 '14 at 22:53
  • @Jolenealaska, no it wouldn't. But if a child psychologist would publish in a parenting magazine that (s)he was able to make a child stop wetting the bed by touching the floor when they use the toilet, then it would be considered a credible first hand account. As to the second thing, it can't be proven after the fact, unless you are documented on a publicly available record before the event saying that it will happen. – SIMEL Mar 7 '14 at 11:49
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Welcome!

The story about the dream exposes another problem with anecdotes: they doesn't tell us "compared to what".

We don't know how many specific details in how many dreams you've mentioned to your husband that didn't come true. If you've mentioned several dreams to your husband, and in each story, there are several details that could have come true, and out of all of those, one of them ended up matching reality, that isn't different than what would be expected by chance.

Anecdotal evidence doesn't give us experimental controls to check whether observations are different from chance.

The Skeptics Guide 5x5 has a good 5-minute podcast episode about anecdotal evidence.


If the question was "has somebody dreamt of a situation that later occurred in real life?", I don't think anyone would press you for much stronger evidence than your anecdote, because even the asker of that question admits that they have experienced this phenomenon.

However, their real question is: is it "just coincidence"?

That's when the anecdote becomes irrelevant. To know if it's just coincidence requires careful reporting and controls.


Case studies are slightly better than anecdotes. If they are committed to writing concurrently or not long after the actual occurrence, they are less likely to fall victim to the fallibility and malleability of our memory. It is amazing how sure we can be of memories that have drifted over time to no longer reflect what actually happened. However, while we can be more sure of the facts of the anecdote in a case study, we aren't any better able to generalize from the anecdote. Case studies and well documented anecdotes are starting points for hypothesis generation.


Summary

  1. Anecdotes may be false, either intentionally or because our memories and senses are fallible.
  2. We can't generalize from anecdotes.
  3. Case studies help avoid problem 1, but don't avoid problem 2.

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