Mental Model: Silent Evidence

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a genius statistician and a provocative writer. People seem to either love him or hate him. I love him. In his brilliant book, The Black Swan, Nassim talks about the striking importance of silent evidence.

It is fallacious to focus on evidence that is clearly visible while ignoring disconfirming evidence that is not readily seen. This deadly concept is called ‘silent evidence.’ Similar ideas are named the anthropic bias and the survivorship bias.

Some great examples of silent evidence...

1. The Story of the Drowned Worshippers

More than two thousand years ago, the Roman orator, belletrist, thinker, Stoic, manipulator-politician, and (usually) virtuous gentleman, Marcus Tullius Cicero, presented the following story.

One Diagoras, a nonbeliever in the gods, was shown painted tablets bearing the portraits of some worshippers who prayed, then survived a subsequent shipwreck. The implication was that praying protects you from drowning. Diagoras asked, “Where were the pictures of those who prayed, then drowned?”

The drowned worshippers, being dead, would have a lot of trouble advertising their experiences from the bottom of the sea.

2. How to Become a Millionaire in 10 Steps

Numerous studies of millionaires aimed at figuring out the skills required for hotshotness follow the following methodology. They take a population of hotshots, those with big titles and big jobs, and study their attributes. They look at what those big guns have in common: courage, risk taking, optimism, and so on, and infer that these traits, most notably risk taking, help you to become successful. You would also probably get the same impression if you read CEOs’ ghostwritten autobiographies or attended their presentations to fawning MBA students.

Now take a look at the cemetery. It is quite difficult to do so because people who fail do not seem to write memoirs, and, if they did, those business publishers I know would not even consider giving them the courtesy of a returned phone call (as to returned e-mail, fuhgedit). Readers would not pay $26.95 for a story of failure, even if you convinced them that it had more useful tricks than a story of success.

Now consider the cemetery. The graveyard of failed persons will be full of people who shared the following traits: courage, risk taking, optimism, et cetera.

3. The Effects of Funding the Hurricane Katrina Victims:

Katrina, the devastating hurricane that hit New Orleans in 2005, got plenty of politicizing politicians on television. These legislators, moved by the images of devastation and the pictures of angry victims made homeless, made promises of “rebuilding.” It was so noble on their part to do something humanitarian, to rise above our abject selfishness.

Did they promise to do so with their own money? No. It was with public money. Consider that such funds will be taken away from somewhere else, as in the saying “You take from Peter to give to Paul.” That somewhere else will be less mediatized. It may be privately funded cancer research, or the next efforts to curb diabetes. Few seem to pay attention to the victims of cancer lying lonely in a state of untelevised depression. Not only do these cancer patients not vote (they will be dead by the next ballot), but they do not manifest themselves to our emotional system. More of them die every day than were killed by Hurricane Katrina; they are the ones who need us the most—not just our financial help, but our attention and kindness.

4. 9/11 Caused an Increase in Car Crashes:

Let us apply this reasoning to September 11, 2001. Around twenty-five hundred people were directly killed by bin Laden’s group in the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Their families benefited from the support of all manner of agencies and charities, as they should. But, according to researchers, during the remaining three months of the year, close to one thousand people died as silent victims of the terrorists. How? Those who were afraid of flying and switched to driving ran an increased risk of death. There was evidence of an increase of casualties on the road during that period; the road is considerably more lethal than the skies. These families got no support—they did not even know that their loved ones were also the victims of bin Laden.

The Good News:

Once we seep ourselves into the notion of silent evidence, so many things around us that were previously hidden start manifesting themselves. Having spent a couple of decades in this mind-set, I am convinced (but cannot prove) that training and education can help us avoid its pitfalls.

And finally, the takeaway message:

Have the guts to consider the silent consequences when standing in front of the next snake-oil humanitarian.

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