The Story of the Drowned Worshippers

More than two thousand years ago, the Roman orator, belletrist, thinker, Stoic, manipulator-politician, and (usually) virtuous gentleman, Marcus Tullius Cicero, presented the following story. One Diagoras, a nonbeliever in the gods, was shown painted tablets bearing the portraits of some worshippers who prayed, then survived a subsequent shipwreck. The implication was that praying protects you from drowning. Diagoras asked, “Where were the pictures of those who prayed, then drowned?”

The drowned worshippers, being dead, would have a lot of trouble advertising their experiences from the bottom of the sea. This can fool the casual observer into believing in miracles.

We call this the problem of silent evidence. The idea is simple, yet potent and universal. (pp. 100-101)

Taleb, N. N. (2010). The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. New York, NY: Random House. (Original work published 2007).

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