Goldacre’s point about ‘publication bias’ is more pervasive in life than meets the eye. It’s not just a clinical practice phenomenon of science. It is a very human tendency that affects perceptions and the resulting biases and prejudices in all parts of life.
People naturally impose their preconceived notions on all that they observe. If their model of the world is that ‘birds don’t fly, they walk’, then every time they see a bird walking on the ground, they say ‘see, that just proves my point.’ And if they happen to see a bird flying, then they defend with the age-old retort ‘that’s the exception that proves my rule.’
As Goldacre points out, the conventional wisdom is that what did happen is inherently more interesting than what didn’t happen. The headline, ‘no one was killed today and no major accidents took place’ is not likely to appear out of a news organisation anytime in the near future.
I was intrigued by the interview with David Baldacci on BBC2 about his research process. He said that, as he did with his depositions when he was a lawyer, he likes to do his interviews in person because he found it more interesting what the person ‘didn’t’ say than what they did (minute 9:00). As Holmes would say, ‘the dog that didn’t bark’ can be the breakthrough clue in an investigation.