Apollo - Success Bias18 Jul 2018
On the 49th anniversary of the Apollo landings (actually that’s in two days - July 20 but I ship this blog every Wednesday), I think it is important to reflect on how different and daring what Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin did when they separated the lander from the command module and descended to the surface of the moon (indeed they almost ran out of fuel and aborted the landing). This is a well told (and televised) story, but this speech, written in anticipation of disaster helps frame the risks that these men took. We always remember the first successful attempt at something because of the publicity it attracts and its later memorialization across our collective memory. This seems unfortunate as it might have the propensity to dull our appreciation of the risk and expectation of difficulty for tasks that we will attempt (at least after some passage of time - major disasters have the tendency to linger). Progress is hard. For every Hillary and Norgay on Everest, there’s a Mallory and Irvine, and for every “one small step for man”, there’s a fire on Apollo I.
It’s probably more appropriate to classify this as a bias towards extremes moreso than a bias towards success. Evolution has ingrained in us a strong appreciation of danger, and we long remember and change our behavior in response to events like terrorist attacks and crime (perhaps a bit too much). For things like summiting large mountains and putting man on the moon, everyday people are sufficiently divorced from the struggle and personal sacrifice required to succeed and failings if not large in scope will probably not be covered as extensively as their complimentary successes (perhaps because covering the status quo is boring). I wonder if the democratization of media through sites like YouTube and the increase in proximity they bring with it will begin to change this . My intuition is that this would lessen but not eliminate the effects as far more people would presumably be exposed to headlines celebrating success than would watch daily or weekly videos.
I’m a pretty big data nerd and bayesian at heart so I’m always on the lookout for types of bias that lead our mental models of the world astray. Survivorship bias is one of the most interesting — famously used by statistician Abraham Wald during the Second World War to more accurately determine where armor should be placed on planes bombing Germany (spoiler — don’t fortify the areas of the planes that have bullet holes in them, fortify the areas that are free of them). There are a lot more types of statistical bias that are quite interesting. I like to double check my certainty of understanding events by trying to estimate my exposure to biases like these.
When I cross posted this on my Medium on 07/01/19 I added some reflection:
 People don’t like Nixon for reasonable reasons but have you heard about his Vice President before Gerald Ford - Spiro Agnew? Agnew was a straight up take money in the Oval Office type of crook. MSNBC did a podcast called Bag Man on him.
 In the startup world there’s been a big development of a “hustle porn” culture which fetishizes failure and looking really busy. This feels less like the failures I’m writing about and more like reality TV.
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