The Silent Evidence

In 2011 Novak Djokovic had a winning streak of 41 matches. Included in this streak is his Australian Open title, as well as titles in Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid and Rome.

His streak was broken when he lost to Roger Federer in the semi-finals of the French open.

About two thirds of the way through his incredible run reports emerged that he’d recently switched to a ‘gluten-free’ diet and commentators attributed this switch to much of his success.

Disregarding any bias for or against gluten, it is difficult to assume that one change in his diet set him on a path of nearly unprecedented success, yet I had an extraordinary number of requests from parents and players requesting that they too be put on a gluten-free diet.

While on the sport of tennis, it is frequently pointed out at the number of successful players who have ‘difficult parents’.

In fact, if you think of Agassi, the Williams sisters, Dokic, Tomic and Mary Pierce’s father you’d be forgiven if you started to wonder if it was actually a requirement to have a ‘psycho parent’.

(This is not a joke but I did have one parent who read Agassi’s book ‘Open’ and informed me that Agassi’s father’s method was the way to produce a champion).

The connecting theme between these two stories is that in both cases we had people looking at the evidence, not the ‘silent evidence’.

WHAT IS ‘SILENT EVIDENCE’?

The silent evidence* is the proof that we do not register. It is there if we look for it but since no one is writing about it or highlighting it, we have to look harder.

Referring to the two stories above:

  • STATEMENT: Gluten-free diets are the key to performing  well.
  • EVIDENCE: Novak Djokovic.
  • SILENT EVIDENCE: All those other athletes who are on gluten-free diets who did not win anything substantial.
  • STATEMENT: To be successful in tennis one needs a psycho parent.
  • EVIDENCE: Tomic, Dokic, Agassi, Pierce, etc.
  • SILENT EVIDENCE: The thousands of players who never made it (or quit) due to the parental pressure.

Looking around the world of sport we can see plenty of examples:

  • STATEMENT: To be successful we need high altitude training/a hyperbaric chamber/magnetic beds/to fly at a low altitude/Pilates/etc.
  • EVIDENCE: The team that won the premiership/Super Bowl/World Champs.
  • SILENT EVIDENCE: Every other team that used the same intervention but didn’t even make the finals series.
  • STATEMENT: To become elite one needs 10,000 hours of practice.
  • EVIDENCE: Bill Gates, the Beatles, Bill Joy, Bobby Fischer, Mozart, etc.
  • SILENT EVIDENCE: Every tennis player over the age of 25, outside the top 150.
  • STATEMENT: Weightlifting stunts growth.
  • EVIDENCE: Weightlifters are short.
  • SILENT EVIDENCE: Weightlifters who are too tall to be successful (and quit).
  • STATEMENT: I am a successful coach.
  • EVIDENCE: Look at the players I produced.
  • SILENT EVIDENCE: The other players who quit, were burned out, went backwards, etc.
  • STATEMENT: CrossFit is a great way to train to improve one’s physique.
  • EVIDENCE: Rich Froning.
  • SILENT EVIDENCE: The queue outside the orthopaedic surgeon’s office.

There is a saying ‘Success leaves footprints’ implying that by following those footprints the reader will also achieve success.

The catch, however, is that there are many footprints (interventions, training methods, culture, structures, gadgets, luck, etc) and we need to improve at our ability at distinguishing which footprints to follow.

In other words, we need to improve at differentiating what is relevant and what is fluff.

One way to improve this is to be aware of the silent evidence and ask this simple question: Who else is doing that and NOT succeeding?

P.S. A simple heuristic to apply:

If the reason for the success is printed in the popular press, it is not the reason for success. 

*As far as I can tell, Nassim Taleb coined this term.

2 comments add your comment

  1. Thanks for writing this. I found this article as I’m trying to wrap my head around “silent evidence.” Sometimes it’s hard coming up with examples of silent evidence since its not in front of you. Since its the other side of the coin. The stuff of what people aren’t talking about. I guess its the problem of anecdotal evidence, or case studies. Thats why cohort studies are better and and randomized controlled studies are the best. But most of life won’t be under the structure of a cohort or RCT. So i’m still trying to figure out how to minimize my exposure to missing silent evidence.

    • Hi Marvin,

      For me, just knowing there is the concept of Silent Evidence encourages me to question all evidence that is presented to me.

      In other words, if you sent me some “evidence” my first thought would be “sure.. but what is the silent evidence?”

      That in and of itself is powerful!

      Chat soon,

      G

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