The bullet hole paradox

I saw a post the other day, on LinkedIn of all places, that piqued my interest. It was titled “the bullet hole paradox.” A more accurate term is survivorship bias.

Survivorship bias

During World War II, fighter and bomber planes would come back from battle, riddled with bullet holes from a combination of the guns of enemy fighters and the Flack bombardments. FlaK is the german short term for Flugabwehrkanone – essentially an 88mm projectile which exploded at altitude, sending out jagged metal fragments that tore through nearby aircraft. It also left that characteristic black cloud hanging in the sky that we all remember from WWII movies.

B-17 Flying Fortress Attacked by Me-109s

The Allies analyzed the returning aircraft. They found the areas that were most commonly hit by enemy fire were the fuselage, the outer wings, and the tail. They sought to add armor to these most commonly damaged parts of the planes to reduce the number that was shot down.

Spitfire

Lucky for them, as armor is expensive and heavy, Abraham Wald, a Hungarian-Jewish statistician pointed out that there was another way to look at the data. Perhaps, he cleverly deduced, the reason that some areas of the returning planes were not covered in bullet holes was because the planes that were shot in those areas did not in fact return.

Wald’s singular insight led to the armor being added where there had been no holes, the cockpit, and the engines. This ‘leap of logic’ I shall call it, helped turn the tide of the war.

The problem is seldom information scarcity, but rather in the interpretation of the data itself, and that interpretation is often biased by our upbringing, our education, our “intuition” and our life experiences.


It turns out that survivorship bias is present in many parts of our lives.

Cats

Yep – bare with me…

There has long been a belief that cats that fall from fewer than six stories have greater injuries than cats who fall from more than six stories. The reason I was told, was that cats reach terminal velocity after righting themselves at about five stories, and then presumably, thrilled with this acrobatic feat, relax, land on their feet and stroll away, while their more vertically challenged cousins lacked both time and flexibility and hit the pavement in a more uncontrolled and permanent fashion.

One, possibly more likely version of this story would be survivorship bias. This version of events simply states that cats that die in any fall are less likely to be brought to a veterinarian than injured cats, and thus many of the cats killed in falls from higher buildings are simply not reported.

The arts

This concept of survivorship bias is interesting right? Well, I thought so. But what does it have to do with writing? Well, the theory goes that it is prevalent in the arts as well.

Why is the music of the 70’s and 80’s so well regarded? Survivorship bias provides a possible answer. Only the best music from those eras continues to be played. They are the tracks that survived the ravages of time.

Who remembers ‘Shaddap You Face by Joe Dolce’ or ‘The Birdie Song by The Tweets’ from the 1980’s? Sadly, I do.

All of today’s music, both brilliant and dreadful remains current and so we unconsciously apply our biases.

I think the same thing is true of some cornerstones of literature. I am reading a novel right now. The story is solid, not this person’s best I suspect, but it’s good. This author has written bestsellers and had some of the best movies ever adapted from his works. But the actual writing. Meh. It’s just OK.

OK – so 99% of you clicked away because you think this is all hard cheese from a self-published nobody (and you would be right in thinking that). But honestly, one page had four paragraphs and they all began with the word ‘then’. How can that be considered great writing?

Reading is hugely down to personal taste, but I remember finishing reading ‘Catcher in the Rye’ and throwing the paperback directly in the dustbin with a combined huge sigh of relief at finishing, and a wistful groan at the not inconsiderable moments of my life I would never get back. ‘The English Patient’ was a brilliant film adaptation of one of the most tedious books I ever had the displeasure to slog through, and you, my friend are talking to someone who has read ‘The Silmarillion’ three times and managed to finish, and even moderately enjoy, Homer’s ‘The Iliad’ AND ‘The Odyssey’.

There is a little of the Emperor’s new clothes applied to many facets of our lives, and apparently, previously unknown to me, a liberal dash of survivorship bias as well. I read a review on Amazon the other day and the kindly fellow stated that he ‘refused to read books by self-published authors because they are all amateurish and baldy written.’ — Baldy written you say? All of them? What an utter knob!

I carry my inner bias too, we all do, it’s partly what makes us who we are. All I ask is that every now and again we all attempt to rise above those limitations and give some of the Indie authors out there a chance and an honest review. Together we can create a new group of survivors.

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One thought on “The bullet hole paradox

  1. I’m not a very bright person, and know very little about the consequences of survivorship bias, but I do know that we each have to find our own path, and just because we look up to one mentor who’s made it (probably a story of survivorship bias), it’s up to us to find our own way there, no matter what others say. Anyway, thanks for this thought-provoking post!

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