Absence Of Evidence Is Not Evidence Of Absence

The importance of a strong Devil’s Advocate as the spectator cannot be overestimated

This is a proposition put forward by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. His underlying message is above all else, not to content yourself with false certainties or half-truths, but to accept uncertainties. You don’t know what you don’t know.

Accept uncertainties and prepare yourself for them. Lay out a safety net, even if lies close to the ground, and protect yourself by minimising possible damage. Take every opportunity to raise the safety net higher. If that which you thought unlikely actually happens, then at least you have limited the impact to the earlier predicted levels. Risk is the product of the chance of something happening times the impact of that happening. The outcome should always be acceptable, in as much as it should be manageable.

Recognise ‘Groupthink’, because it is here in particular that (practised) spectators see more than players. Just because something has never happened before, or is seen as being unlikely, certainly doesn’t mean that it won’t happen. In his book ‘ The Black Swan’, Nassim Taleb describes the life of an American turkey – almost 1,000 days of fine living until ‘Thanksgiving’ comes along in his 3rd year of life. Based on his past experience, there is no reason for the turkey to imagine that such an all-encompassing event would occur in his 3rd year of life.

The opposite is of course also true – you cannot always protect yourself from everything, and fear makes for a bad advisor. The essential element is how you deal with uncertainty. Nothing is more treacherous than ruling out uncertainties through the use of false certainties. Groupthink plays no small part in false certainty. Many decision-making processes lack a ‘Devil’s Advocate’: a constant counterforce, not just to be contrarian, but to expand the brainpower available, to bring along fresh arguments, give existing arguments a fresh look and to break through false certainties. The importance of a strong ‘Devil’s Advocate’ as a spectator cannot be overestimated – ‘Where all think alike, no one thinks very much’.