How Much Evidence Does It Take?

Previously, I defined evidence as “an event entangled, by links of cause and effect, with whatever you want to know about,” and entangled as “happening differently for different possible states of the target.” So how much entanglement—how much rational evidence—is required to support a belief?

Let’s start with a question simple enough to be mathematical: How hard would you have to entangle yourself with the lottery in order to win? Suppose there are seventy balls, drawn without replacement, and six numbers to match for the win. Then there are 131,115,985 possible winning combinations, hence a randomly selected ticket would have a 1131,115,985 probability of winning (0.0000007%). To win the lottery, you would need evidence selective enough to visibly favor one combination over 131,115,984 alternatives.

Suppose there are some tests you can perform which discriminate, probabilistically, between winning and losing lottery numbers. For example, you can punch a combination into a little black box that always beeps if the combination is the winner, and has only a 14 (25%) chance of beeping if the combination is wrong. In Bayesian terms, we would say the likelihood ratio is 4 to 1. This means that the box is 4 times as likely to beep when we punch in a correct combination, compared to how likely it is to beep for an incorrect combination.

There are still a whole lot of possible combinations. If you punch in 20 incorrect combinations, the box will beep on 5 of them by sheer chance (on average). If you punch in all 131,115,985 possible combinations, then while the box is certain to beep for the one winning combination, it will also beep for 32,778,996 losing combinations (on average).

So this box doesn’t let you win the lottery, but it’s better than nothing. If you used the box, your odds of winning would go from 1 in 131,115,985 to 1 in 32,778,997. You’ve made some progress toward finding your target, the truth, within the huge space of possibilities.

Suppose you can use another black box to test combinations twice, independently. Both boxes are certain to beep for the winning ticket. But the chance of a box beeping for a losing combination is 14 independently for each box; hence the chance of both boxes beeping for a losing combination is 116. We can say that the cumulative evidence, of two independent tests, has a likelihood ratio of 16:1. The number of losing lottery tickets that pass both tests will be (on average) 8,194,749.

Since there are 131,115,985 possible lottery tickets, you might guess that you need evidence whose strength is around 131,115,985 to 1—an event, or series of events, which is 131,115,985 times more likely to happen for a winning combination than a losing combination. Actually, this amount of evidence would only be enough to give you an even chance of winning the lottery. Why? Because if you apply a filter of that power to 131 million losing tickets, there will be, on average, one losing ticket that passes the filter. The winning ticket will also pass the filter. So you’ll be left with two tickets that passed the filter, only one of them a winner. Fifty percent odds of winning, if you can only buy one ticket.

A better way of viewing the problem: In the beginning, there is 1 winning ticket and 131,115,984 losing tickets, so your odds of winning are 1:131,115,984. If you use a single box, the odds of it beeping are 1 for a winning ticket and 0.25 for a losing ticket. So we multiply 1:131,115,984 by 1:0.25 and get 1:32,778,996. Adding another box of evidence multiplies the odds by 1:0.25 again, so now the odds are 1 winning ticket to 8,194,749 losing tickets.

It is convenient to measure evidence in bits—not like bits on a hard drive, but mathematician’s bits, which are conceptually different. Mathematician’s bits are the logarithms, base 12, of probabilities. For example, if there are four possible outcomes A, B, C, and D, whose probabilities are 50%, 25%, 12.5%, and 12.5%, and I tell you the outcome was “D,” then I have transmitted three bits of information to you, because I informed you of an outcome whose probability was 18.

It so happens that 131,115,984 is slightly less than 2 to the 27th power. So 14 boxes or 28 bits of evidence—an event 268,435,456:1 times more likely to happen if the ticket-hypothesis is true than if it is false—would shift the odds from 1:131,115,984 to 268,435,456:131,115,984, which reduces to 2:1. Odds of 2 to 1 mean two chances to win for each chance to lose, so the probability of winning with 28 bits of evidence is 23. Adding another box, another 2 bits of evidence, would take the odds to 8:1. Adding yet another two boxes would take the chance of winning to 128:1.

So if you want to license a strong belief that you will win the lottery—arbitrarily defined as less than a 1% probability of being wrong—34 bits of evidence about the winning combination should do the trick.

In general, the rules for weighing “how much evidence it takes” follow a similar pattern: The larger the space of possibilities in which the hypothesis lies, or the more unlikely the hypothesis seems a priori compared to its neighbors, or the more confident you wish to be, the more evidence you need.

You cannot defy the rules; you cannot form accurate beliefs based on inadequate evidence. Let’s say you’ve got 10 boxes lined up in a row, and you start punching combinations into the boxes. You cannot stop on the first combination that gets beeps from all 10 boxes, saying, “But the odds of that happening for a losing combination are a million to one! I’ll just ignore those ivory-tower Bayesian rules and stop here.” On average, 131 losing tickets will pass such a test for every winner. Considering the space of possibilities and the prior improbability, you jumped to a too-strong conclusion based on insufficient evidence. That’s not a pointless bureaucratic regulation; it’s math.

Of course, you can still believe based on inadequate evidence, if that is your whim; but you will not be able to believe accurately. It is like trying to drive your car without any fuel, because you don’t believe in the fuddy-duddy concept that it ought to take fuel to go places. Wouldn’t it be so much more fun, and so much less expensive, if we just decided to repeal the law that cars need fuel?

Well, you can try. You can even shut your eyes and pretend the car is moving. But really arriving at accurate beliefs requires evidence-fuel, and the further you want to go, the more fuel you need.