Hindsight bias is bad, confirmation bias is worse, and naked bias is the worst of all. 2012 Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine was the victim of all three with a vengeance during that disastrous Boston baseball season, and is still. I have been tempted to write about Bobby’s plight since last August, when the Red Sox management threw in the towel on the season and the long knives really came out in the Boston press corps. Now Valentine has been gone for six months, half the team has been replaced, and spring is dawning, yet hardly a day passes in which one of these ink-strained wretches doesn’t take a pot-shot at the deposed manager, leaving the absolutely false impression that he could have done anything to forestall or mitigate the cataclysm that befell the Red Sox in 2012. Continue reading
Tag Archives: hindsight bias
The fourth episode of the PBS sensation “Downton Abbey” provided a clinical examination of how bias of all kinds can rule the most important decisions in our lives, and how moral luck so frequently determines our conclusions about whether those decisions were right, wrong, or really, really wrong. It also shed some light on the current policy conundrum of how best to consider medical malpractice suits—as a fair and necessary means of rewarding the victims of professional errors, or as a decidedly unfair device that distorts the practice of medicine and inflates its costs without improving treatment.
For those who have not caught the trans-Atlantic mania of following the saga of the Earl of Grantham and his extended family as they try to maintain their life of luxury as members of the landed aristocracy post-World War I, here are the relevant plot points of the most recent episode (in the U.S.; Great Britain is a season ahead of us):
Sybil, the much loved but rebellious daughter of the Earl is staying at the family estate (all right, castle) as she prepares for childbirth. (She and her Irish revolutionary husband Tom are on the lam from British authorities, but never mind that). The Earl naturally wants the best medical care for his daughter, and rejects the long-time family physician, Dr. Clarkson, for the task, because he has made some faulty diagnoses of late that led to all kinds of sorrow in last season’s drama. So the Earl calls in a renowned surgeon to the upper crust who is upper crust himself, Sir Philip Tapsell. (He appears to be an arrogant, pompous jerk, but the show’s writers show him giving sage and well-worded advice to the Earl’s non-Irish revolutionary son-in-law on the delicate matter of his sperm count, so we know he’s not a fraud as well.)
The Earl’s American but far too deferential wife Cora (in case you wondered whatever happened to the cute Elizabeth McGovern from “Ordinary People,” the answer is, “This!”) seeks to rescue Dr. Clarkson from a stinging snub by insisting that he come to Downton Abbey and be present for the childbirth as what we would call a consulting physician to Sir Philip, who doesn’t want one. Two head-strong doctors and hostile doctors looking after the same patient—yes, this will work out well.
Sure enough, Sybil’s pregnancy takes an ominous turn. Her ankles are swollen (“Perhaps she has thick ankles!” huffs Sir Philip, pooh-poohing the symptom. “She does not!” replies loyal Dr. Clarkson), her mental state is confused, and there is protein in her blood. Clarkson concludes that Sybil is toxemic and believes she could suffer eclampsia if she isn’t taken to the hospital immediately for a Caesarian section. Sir Philip dismisses him as a hysteric hack, and insists that Sybil’s pregnancy is normal and fine. Since Caesarians were risky in the 1920’s, often resulting in the deaths of the mother, the baby, or both, he believes Dr. Clarkson is giving irresponsible advice. As critical minutes tick away, Lord Grantham asks Clarkson if he can guarantee that Sybil will survive the ordeal of a Caesarian. “There are no guarantees,” he replies, correctly. Not hearing what he wanted to hear, the worried father turns to Sir Phillip and asks how certain the blue-blood doc is that the operation is unnecessary. “Completely certain,” is the ridiculous reply.
Announcing that certainty is a better bet than equivocation, Lord Grantham decrees that Sybil will remain at the castle to have her child, which she promptly does. All seems to be well, too, with a healthy baby, a beaming mother, a relieved family, and a smugly gloating Sir Phillip. But then Sybil goes into the violent seizures characteristic of eclampsia, and it is too late to save her. She dies. Dr. Clarkson’s diagnosis was correct. The family is devastated; Sir Philip is stunned, Cora is furious at both him and her husband, and the Earl of Grantham is feeling guilty.
Cora’s anger, the Earl’s guilt and the vindication of Dr. Clarkson are all the result of a bad-tasting recipe of hindsight bias and moral luck. Sybil might have not gone into convulsions. She might not have survived the Caesarian, in which case Dr. Clarkson would be the one looking incompetent, Sir Phillip would say “I told you so,” and Cora would be furious at a different doctor but the same decision-maker, her husband, who would still be sleeping in the guest room. Continue reading
If you want to see the stark difference between the culture of baseball and the culture of football. look no further than Washington, D.C., where the city’s sports fans are in mourning for the second time in barely three months’ time. The surging Redskins just met play-off elimination, because their young star quarterback was injured but allowed to stay in the game. Back in October, the city’s new sports darlings, baseball’s Nationals, were eliminated in their first play-off round, in part, fans believe, because the team wouldn’t let its completely healthy young star pitcher play for fear that he would get injured.
This week everyone from my local sandwich shop proprietor to the driver of the cab I just got out of is furious at Redskins coach Mike Shanahan for allowing the obviously hobbled Robert Griffin III to stay in the doomed game against the Seattle Seahawks when there was a competent back-up on the bench. And some, like Yahoo! sportswriter Dan Wetzel, are blaming Griffin, for “lying”:
“Robert Griffin III couldn’t do much of anything Sunday except lie, which is what he’s been trained to do in situations like this.
Lie to himself that he can still deliver like no backup could. Lie to his coach that this was nothing big. Lie to the doctors who tried to assess him in the swirl of a playoff sideline. So Robert Griffin III lied, which is to be excused because this is a sport that rewards toughness in the face of common sense, a culture that celebrates the warrior who is willing to leave everything on the field, a business that believes such lies are part of the road to greatness.” Continue reading
It will be scant consolation to Chris Christie, who probably lost forever any chance of becoming President, but his bi-partisan actions in the wake of Superstorm Sandy provide a perfect example of how a completely ethical and responsible decision can have consequences that cause it to be judged unethical and irresponsible.
Even before Obama won Ohio’s electoral votes, guaranteeing his re-election, analysts were pointing to Christie’s much-photographed stroll with (and hugging of) the President, and the well-timed opportunity it provided to allow Obama to appear both Presidential and willing to co-operate with Republicans, as the tipping point in a close race, breaking Mitt Romney’s momentum and undercutting the argument that only he could “reach across the aisle.” I doubt that Chris and Barack’s New Jersey Adventure was in fact the primary reason Romney lost, but I have no doubt at all that conservatives will blame Christie, among others, for the loss. Continue reading
For me, as a Boston Red Sox fan, what befell the Washington Nationals last week stirred unpleasant memories of having my own hopes dashed by the cruel bounces and turns of that little white ball, as it turned my team from sure winners to embarrassed losers faster than you could say”Bucky Dent.” Luckily, as I have explained here, my temporary abandonment of the beloved Hose did not turn me into a Nationals devotee, so I could watch the horrors of the Nats’ ninth inning, decisive game catastrophe, which occurred when they were one strike away from victory and a step closer to their first World Series in 79 years, with analytical detachment. I have consoled my heart-broken friends, and am prepared to help them through the long, hard winter, when visions of “what ifs?”will dance through their heads instead of sugarplums. John Feinstein, the acclaimed sports writer, isn’t helping, however. Continue reading
I haven’t watched a Red Sox game for over a month now; more on that soon. I do check on the game results however, and observed with interest that Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine, currently being dressed for the guillotine by New England sportswriters who want him punished for a miserable season in which his own work has been outstanding, is being criticized today in a textbook example of hindsight bias at work. I am flagging it for any of you who might want to explain the phenomenon to the next jerk who criticizes you for a reasonable choice you made not knowing how it would turn out, based on the jerk’s knowledge of how it in fact did turn out.
My least favorite personal run-in with hindsight bias was the time I lost a poker hand—and a lot of money– in Vegas despite having four of a kind in a game of seven card stud. The old man sitting next to me looking pathetic also had four of a kind, and in a higher denomination, the odds of two four of a kind hands appearing in the same deal in a non-wild card game being approximately six-gazillion to one. Naturally, I was betting the limit until the old man called my hand—he said later that he felt sorry for me. When he revealed that he had my four sevens beat with his four %$#@%$*& tens, it caused a genuine uproar in the casino, and the dealer said that he had never seen the like in eight years on the job.
“You should have known he had you beat,” said the ass sitting on my right. That’s hindsight bias. And so is this. Continue reading
In the wake of Andy Griffith’s death today, a friend of mine wrote this on Facebook: “If you’re waxing nostalgic about Mayberry as an idyllic 1960s Southern town, remember that it had no Negroes living there. Is it any wonder that show was so popular in the midst of the turmoil of the civil rights movement?”
The sentiment was undoubtedly motivated by good intentions, but boy, it is unfair. America was a largely segregated society in 1960, when “The Andy Griffith Show” began its trek to television Valhalla, and it was not up to the producers or writers of a folksy sitcom set in small North Carolina town to remedy that, protest it, or comment on it. This wasn’t “Andy Kills a Mockingbird.” It was a comedy, and a comedy unique and precious for celebrating basic ethical values like kindness, loyalty, friendship, tolerance, community, cooperation, patience, respect and virtue. There were no racist sentiments or attitudes expressed in Mayberry, and no reason to doubt that if a black family moved into the town, they would have been embraced, appreciated, and treated like everyone else. The fact that this may not have been true of a real North Carolina town of that period is as irrelevant as pointing out that real Scottish villages don’t disappear and reappear centuries later like Brigadoon. Continue reading
Gallup released a poll yesterday, showing:
- African-Americans are nearly five times more likely to be convinced that gunman George Zimmerman is “definitely guilty” of a crime than non-blacks.
- 75% of African-Americans believe that racial bias led to Martin’s shooting, whereas less than half of non-blacks do, though a majority of the public believe that race was a factor in the tragedy.
- 73% of blacks, about twice the percentage of the rest of the population, believe that Zimmerman would have been arrested if the person he shot was white.
What we now have, clearly, is significant, dangerous, and festering racial distrust, not created solely by the Trayvon Martin incident but exacerbated by it. This can only harm race relations, law enforcement, and the nation generally, and yet it is beyond argument that this divide has been encouraged and nurtured. Obviously the potential already existed, and one would think that responsible figures in public life, the civil rights establishment, elected office and the media would take the responsible course and attempt to minimize the shooting’s potential for increasing racial divisiveness in America.
They did not. Once again, they ripped the scab right off racial healing, and did so recklessly, cruelly, ineptly, and in some cases, maliciously. They are still doing it, or passively allowing it to be done by others. This is wrong, and shockingly so. Rational and fair analysts and observers all along the ideological spectrum should be saying so, but they are not. Fairness and honesty should not partisan issues. Playing the politics of hate and divisiveness is a threat to the fabric of the United States of America and in this case, risks unraveling decades of progress in race relations and understanding. There can be no excuse for it, and yet the primary culprits reside among the most influential and prominent institutions in the country. Journalists. Congress. Civil rights organizations. Pundits. Educators. And the President of the United States. Continue reading
In Kansas City, Missouri, a 13-year-old East High School student was walking home after the end of his daily classes when he was grabbed by two older teens just as he reached his front porch. They pinned his arms behind his back, poured gasoline on him, and set him on fire. The victim of the attack was rushed to an emergency room, where he was treated and released. Doctors fear possible damage to his lungs and eyes, but outside of losing his eyebrows and some hair, he only suffered first degree burns.
The boy is white; his attackers were black. They allegedly said, as they were lighting him aflame, “You get what you deserve, white boy.”
This frightening incident occurred on March 2. I only recently learned of it, because the news media didn’t treat it as a national story. Though the boy’s attackers have not been found, no activists are demanding that the police chief resign. There have been no marches or protests, and students aren’t walking out of Kansas City schools. Nobody, as far as I can determine, has claimed that this is just the tip of a lurking race iceberg, and that it shows the racial hate of blacks toward whites that is hidden by the media and the culture. Most of all, the President of the United States did not say , just to give a wild, hypothetical example… Continue reading
Today is Columbus Day, not that one would know it to read the typical paper or to watch most newscasts. The Italian explorer’s reputation and legacy have been relentlessly eroded over the years by temporal chauvinists who apply spurious social and historical hindsight to justify unfair criticism of civilization’s heroes. Christopher Columbus deserves the honor this holiday bestowed on him. He was a visionary and an explorer who, like all transformative figures, possessed the courage and imagination to challenge conventional wisdom and seek new horizons of achievement.
Holding Columbus responsible for the predation of the Spanish and the devastation of native populations that were among the unanticipated consequences of his achievement is the equivalent of blaming Steve Jobs for technology’s elimination of occupations and the fact that our children are fat and have the attention span of mayflies. And of course, anyone who believes that the Stone Age populations of the Americas would have continued to prosper in Avatar bliss without Columbus’s intrusion is ignorant of both human nature and world history. Continue reading