Saturday, September 01, 2007

Silent Evidence

Silent evidence is as valuable as the observable, concrete type, but it is harder to notice. Sherlock Holmes noted the dog which did not bark, and once the significance of that was noted, the meaning was immediately apparent.

The conversation over at Sippican Cottage runs to the new phenomenon The Dangerous Book For Boys and similar books which have leapt to market recently. We last followed G. Sippican's adventures in the medical establishments of Massachusetts, where his Lyme Disease had gone undiagnosed and he found himself unable to get an MD's attention about the symptoms. He finds the activities in the DBB to be rather mild, and is proposing to write his own volume The Borderline Sociopathic Book For Boys. Great fun, but an event at work triggered the memory of silent evidence. I once asked an elderly psychiatrist what he thought of all the ridiculous precautions we took protecting our children in this soft era. Bicycle helmets - I mean really.

Having worked at children's rehab facilities, he pointed out to us with the mildest of disapproval "The children who got head injuries then were sent away to special schools, and you never saw them again." Ouch. Pursuing this further on my own, I recalled that those less severely injured or handicapped lived somewhat on the outskirts of children's socialization. When we remember our friends, what we did, how we lived, what risks we took, we are not remembering the full sample. Some were removed, making our picture false.

Taleb focuses a good deal of attention on this in The Black Swan. He uses the career of Casanova as an example - not the many seductions, but his seemingly uncanny ability to bounce back from disaster time and again. But of course. No one wrote books about the people who bounced back from disaster four times but then lived out their remaining three decades in failure. When a million people roll a die, 166K+ will roll a 6. If the million rolls again, almost 28K will have rolled two sixes. A third, fourth and fifth roll will isolate more than a hundred people who have rolled nothing but sixes. What did they do differently? Did they roll a special way? Local newspapers interview them, and psychology departments study these special lucky ones for common themes.

But that's just crap. We see that it's crap when it's rolls of the die, but when it is about business success we attribute more meaning than is warranted. Certainly, some decisions are better than others and give an advantage. But the advice that comes from those folks is generally useless for the simple reason that they themselves often don't know why they made it. "Always keep a positive attitude, and get up early." What about those other thousands of people who had a positive attitude and got up early, whose businesses did not succeed?

The seven habits of highly effective people, and all that. There are people who have done all seven of those things all their lives and never gotten anywhere. When we only study the group that has made it, we get a false picture. The silent evidence is hidden from us.

I am not denying all causation or saying that there is nothing that can be learned from observing the successful. I am saying that such observation gives us a skewed picture. Those thousands of women who sing as well as Madonna and take off as many clothes and do all the things she did in her early career but don't become world-famous, what are they to conclude? That they are unusually unlucky or incompetent? Of course not. Out of the many musicians paying their dues in exactly the same way, some few will hit it big. And those few will think they are pretty special and have done something remarkable which the others have not. Rubbish.

Gambling sites use an old gambler's trick by offering you some free picks at first. If 10,000 people contact your website and get a free pick, how many of them are going to think you're brilliant? If you give another free pick to that group, you will now have a sizable group of people who think you are the best handicapper ever, and will pay you big money to learn your next pick. Worse, lots of them will keep coming back even if your picks fail.

For Christians, this has not only practical importance, but spiritual as well. All those big churches who tell you what they did, those preachers who will explain to you why God has blessed their ministry - well, maybe not. Maybe they just built their facility in a good spot in a growing area. Have you noticed, in fact, that these super-churches are never from areas where the population is declining? Huh. How about that. God doesn't work in those areas, I guess. The spiritual arrogance that results is almost unconscious. "Well, we give God all the glory. We just made ourselves open to the Holy Spirit..." Those other Christians from West Virginia or the Dakotas - are we to conclude they were not open to the Holy Spirit? Danger. Danger here.

You need this concept under your belt when I discuss Lewis's influence on Tolkien. At no time will my fingers leave my hands.

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