The frequent confusion

Journalists often confuse ‘absence of evidence’ for ‘evidence of absence’.

Let’s say a scientific study of cancer treatments concludes that there isn’t sufficient evidence for a particular stem-cell intervention. When this study is published, I can already picture newspaper headlines screming out, ‘Study concludes that stem cell intervention does not cure cancer’.

The study merely said that there is absence of sufficient evidence – that more research is required. But the headline quotes it as evidence of absence.

When Covid-19 swept the world, the unpreparedness of the West (compared to East Asia) was striking. For nearly a century, pre-Covid pandemics had failed to reach the West – there was an ‘absence of evidence’ of a widespread worldwide pandemic. Sadly, this was mistaken for ‘evidence of absence’ and ended up costing millions of lives.

Let us not confuse ‘that hasn’t happened yet’ with ‘that is never going to happen’.

Inspiration: Antifragile

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