Appleseed

When I was a boy, I once attempted to emulate one of my many namesakes and buried a few apples in the back, untamed area of a relative’s property. I was eager to reap the literal fruits of my labor and give my cousins and I some delicious apples in the future.

And sure enough, something sprouted in only a few short days! What fortune! Within a week it was quite a large plant and I proudly told all my cousins about the bounty we would soon receive due to my efforts. Based on the rate of growth, we’d have apples before the month was out! My cousins, similar in age to me, were quite impressed and eventually the adults discovered why.

They laughed for an hour before pulling up the weeds that were growing in the spot where I’d buried the apples.

Here was the problem I had as a kid, and it’s the same problem many adults have today – I didn’t understand the concept of the counterfactual.

See, I had a reasonable (if incomplete) understanding of how seeds and plants work – seeds go in ground, plants come up. I knew, to borrow a phrase, just enough to be dangerous. And I had reasonable (to me) evidence that my theory was correct – after all, I’d put a seed in the ground and a plant had started to grow! That’s exactly what I wanted and expected to happen, so why shouldn’t I assume I was successful?

Of course, it was the counterfactual that I had never even considered: yes, a tree might grow if I plant a seed. But that doesn’t mean a plant won’t grow if I don’t – which means I can’t be sure that this plant is from my seed without more information (such as, and this is just a start, how an apple tree might differ from a weed in both appearance and growth rate).

Adults continue to make this mistake all the time.

Watch it happen: “Yes, my kid is doing very well in kindergarten. It’s all because of that expensive pre-school we paid for.”

Watch again: “I owe all of my success to my time at college. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without it.”

Watch once more: “My business is successful because of my decision to invest in this new technology. If I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t be doing nearly as well.”

Here’s the pattern: you take a reasonable-sounding, plausible but simple theory of how the world works. Then you run exactly one experiment with zero control groups. If you get the result you wanted, you declare your theory correct. Bad science, easy rationalization. You say, “It makes intuitive sense that a good preschool would give my kid an advantage in K-12, and my kid is doing well in kindergarten, so I must be right.” What you’ll never get to know is whether your kid would have done equally well in kindergarten without the preschool. Maybe they’d have done better!

It makes intuitive sense that if I plant an apple, an apple tree will grow. Something is growing, so it must be an apple tree.”

The lesson here isn’t to never try things. Send your kid to preschool if you want, go to college if you enjoy it, invest in a new technology that seems cool. But be careful not to turn one anecdote, no matter how appealing, into an iron-clad life lesson that you try to impart to others. “Sales guru” shysters have been doing this forever – they succeed in one specific way, then capitalize much further than is reasonable on that success by selling their one-time anecdote as a “road map to success” or some other kind of fool-proof blueprint. That’s just not how it works.

In the garden of true knowledge, those are the weeds. Pull them and work hard on the real trees; that’s the only secret.

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