Reality Needs Evidence

Publicly criticized for one of the myriad regulations introduced to handle covid-19, a German politician came up with a clever phrase: “The absence of evidence proving an effect is not evidence proving the absence of an effect.” In other words: Just because you can’t see it’s working does not mean it’s not working.

This is the epitome of a political statement today. It’s glib and uses big words, but it doesn’t really say anything. Worst of all, it’s true, but at the same time, it’s so benign and self-evident as to be pointless. A perfect example of bullshit.

If you do a “wealth dance” every day, hoping it’ll make you rich, no one can tell you it’s not working, but unless it works out within a month or two, sooner or later, you’ll start doubting your theory — and that’s perfectly appropriate!

If we had infinite time, we could try every strategy under the sun, no matter how harebrained it might seem. But we don’t, do we? Our time is limited and, in the case of a global health crisis, quite severely so. Evidence matters. The sooner you can prove something is working, the better. And if you can’t, it’s only a matter of time before someone will call you out on it.

This does not mean that every choice must be reversed, should it not yield results immediately. But the duration of the experiment should be determined in advance. By and large, that’s what German politicians did with covid-19. “We’ll have these new rules for three months, and then we’ll revise.” But sometimes, they threw their plans into the fire too quickly. At other times, individual figureheads insisted on the benefit of measures where the data long suggested otherwise. But covid is a complex problem. Our lives are usually simpler.

Instead of throwing stuff at the wall and hoping for the best, plan with evidence in mind. Set a timer for your art session, and select projectiles you think are at least likely to stick. If you want to grow a website, write one article a day for a year. If you want to get promoted, focus on a different high-impact project each month. And if you’re unsure why you’re gaining weight, cut out different foods in rotation.

It’s true that we’ll often have to show faith where we’d much rather quit, but we also can’t drive blind and pretend everything’s fine. The real world requires evidence. It’s up to us to decide how and how long we’ll try before giving up, but they’re decisions we’re absolutely capable of making.

Don’t settle for “innocent until proven guilty.” Be a good detective. Insist on finding evidence, and whenever we tweet nonsense, please remind the rest of us to do the same.