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Solace blog

16th June 2016

Holy evidence, Batman

Abraham Wald was a Jew who, after being hounded out of Austria just before WWII, became a professor of statistics at Columbia University, and ended up working for the Statistical Research Group of statisticians supporting the American war effort. As an ‘enemy alien’ his status was confused – technically he was not allowed to see the reports that he was himself producing!

He was set the task of working out the optimum configuration of armour on US military aircraft – too little and they get shot down, too much and they become too heavy to fly efficiently. He was presented with data on the distribution of bullet holes on the planes that returned and was asked how much more armour to put on those parts of the planes.

After considering the problem his answer was not to add armour to those parts – by definition, those that had returned with bullet holes demonstrated that those bullet holes could be tolerated. It was the areas of the planes which returned with no bullet holes that demonstrated that if the planes had been struck in those parts, those planes would not be returning.

So those ‘no bullet hole’ areas were targeted for more armour, which led to a greater number of planes surviving and being able to run many more missions. And that contributed to the victory in the war – not the stuff of heroic war stories perhaps, but the stuff of winning wars.[1]

This mindset, of wanting to understand a problem, and apply a mathematical or scientific methodology to solve it, is key to humanity’s progress since the Enlightenment. But recent events show that it is coming under pressure – whether you look at the Trump rhetoric in the USA presidential primaries or the ‘facts’ expounded by both sides of the EU Referendum debate over here.

President Obama’s recent Commencement speech at Rutgers University (a must-see eight minutes on YouTube), captures the essence of this very well. He stated that: “facts, evidence, reason, logic and understanding of science are good things, these are qualities you want in people making policy; we traditionally have valued those things, but if you were listening to today’s political debate you might wonder where this strain of anti-intellectualism came from? Let me be as clear as I can be, in politics and in life, ignorance is not a virtue. But when our leaders express a disdain for facts, when they are not held accountable for repeating falsehoods and just making stuff up, while actual experts are dismissed as elitists, then we got a problem. The rejection of facts, of reason and science, that is the path to decline”.

In my view, social media has certainly played a part in this – the ‘democracy’ of these platforms ensures that one person’s knowledge is rendered equivalent to another person’s ignorance. And by definition, there are many more ignorant people on a given subject than experts – so on numbers alone, people who know what they are talking about tend to get drowned out by people who do not, and that is without any active disdain of knowledge and expertise.

Our role as public leaders is to cultivate a culture of being curious in our organisations, in our sector, in our staff, and most of all in ourselves, and to make real the values and behaviours of being evidence led, or at least evidence-informed. We need to think through what this looks like in local government.

We perhaps cannot afford to build the equivalent of the US military’s Statistical Research Group and recruit the Abraham Walds of today, but we can support our governance systems to ensure that there is sufficient critical thinking in the system, for example through scrutiny, audit, and external challenge. And rather than through silence or inaction be complicit with those who are confident in their own ignorance, we should elevate the individuals in our organisations who know what they are talking about, or maybe even better, know how to know what they are talking
about, as they turn their attention to different problems. That is the only way we stand a chance of finding real solutions to the challenges that we face as a sector.

By Abdool Kara, Chief Executive of Swale Borough Council and Solace Spokesperson on Evidence Based Policy

[1] This story is taken from ‘How not to wrong: The hidden maths of everyday life’, by Jordan Ellenerg, Penguin Books, 2015.