Silent Evidence: Forgetting That Dead Men Tell No Tales

“Where are the pictures of those who prayed, then drowned?” replied the 5th century BC Greek sophist Diagoras “the Atheist” of Melos, when shown some painted portraits of worshippers who prayed and then survived a subsequent shipwreck.

This is the problem of silent evidence. The drowned worshippers, being dead, did not get a chance to advertise their experiences from the bottom of the sea.

We have a tendency to view historical evidence in a similar way, with a filter that selects the rosier parts while ignoring those that don’t fit our preconceptions. We usually tend to forget that there is a part of history that is inaccessible to us and therefore, silent. This often fools the casual observer into believing in miracles.

“History is written by the victors” because like the drowned worshippers, losers in history do not get to share their experiences in books. Hence, there is a natural bias while attributing factors in the historical success of certain ideas, propagandas, movements, revolutions, and professions. It is so easy to avoid looking at the cemetery while concocting theories.

But this is not just a problem with history. It is a problem with the way we construct samples and uncover patterns in every domain in every day life.

In 2011 Novak Djokovic had a winning streak of 41 matches. In the midst of his streak, reports began to emerge that he’d recently switched to a gluten-free diet. Commentators attributed this switch to much of his success. This lead to an extraordinary number of requests coming from players requesting that they too be put on a gluten-free diet.

In tennis, the number of successful players with ‘difficult parents’ is mentioned more than often. If you think of Agassi, the Williams sisters, Dokic, Tomic and Mary Pierce’s father you might start wondering if it’s actually a requirement to have a ‘psycho parent’ to be successful in tennis.

Like the drowned worshippers, in both the above (modern) cases we generally are looking only at the evidence, and not the silent evidence.

We see successful writers. We do not see the tons of rejected manuscripts because these writers have never been published. We see film stars. We don’t consider the number of actors who have never passed an audition but would have done very well had they had that lucky break in life.

Numerous studies of successful founders and businesses trying to figure out the skills required for their success follow similar methodology. They take a population of successful people and study their attributes. They look at what all of them have in common: courage, risk taking attitude, optimism, and so on, and infer that these traits help you become successful.

Funny thing is, the graveyard of failures will also be full of people who share similar traits: courage, risk taking, optimism, yada yada. There may be some differences in skills, but what truly separates the two is for the most part a single factor: luck. Plain and simple luck.

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