The bigger picture

we only learn from our mistakes — proverb

During the second world war, aircrafts and bombers had an important part to play. Though the aircrafts flew high, they were susceptible to gunfire and damage. A certain amount of armour could be placed on the planes to protect them from gunfire thereby keeping them safe and increasing chances of return. The question was, where was the armour to be placed? Of course the whole aircraft couldn’t be armoured due to weight concerns. Some specific parts had to be picked out. For data, the engineers had a few aircrafts laden with bullet holes that had made their way back to the base. A lot of them had suffered intensive damage in certain areas. The engineers thus decided it was best to armour the areas that had suffered the most damage. That seemed the most logical thing to do. They decided to consult statisticians in order to ascertain their conclusions. That is when statistician Abraham Wald came into the picture.

Wald was of the view that due to survivor bias, the engineers had come to the wrong conclusions. They had decided the spots for armour looking at the aircrafts that had made it back safely. Those aircrafts had been extensively damaged in parts which still allowed them to return to base. The engineers on the other hand failed to consider the hundreds of planes that hadn’t made it back and crashed. Those aircrafts would have sustained damage in parts that proved to be problematic and those were the parts that needed the armour. Hence the parts of the plane that needed armoring were the ones that were “clean” in the surviving planes. This was a classic example of how survivor bias affects logical situations.

One tends to ignore and forget cases that are invisible at the moment, thinking they are non-existent. Like in the case of the airplanes where the ones that hadn’t returned hadn’t been considered in the equation. In an exam, when one scores 80/100, it is known that 20 marks have been lost and that’s the region to be improved upon. Situations are not always so clear in life. Failures and negatives aren’t always visible but that’s where the changes are to be made. People move towards sports and the film industry looking at the superstars and their success. They do not consider the fact that for one single super successful actor or sportsman, there are thousands that did not make the cut. For every player selected in the national team, there are thousands stuck in the domestic level, or one level above or below. The odds of making it thus are infinitesimal and much worse than one assumes. The bigger picture is forgotten, and unrealistic expectations and scenarios are drawn. There’s always hidden data that plays a huge role(depending on it’s quantity), and all of it must be discovered and taken care of in order to improve odds. It may not be “optimistic” qualitatively, but it is quantitatively.