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Bombs in Boston and Ideas that Bomb

April 19, 2013

A very perceptive, connected, media savvy, friend just wrote some nonsense to me about the terrible events in Boston over the last few days.  He wrote ” who would have thought that the blow-back from Chechnya would come to America in the form of an attack on the Boston Marathon?”

Chechnya?  I’d be extremely surprised.  There’s a well studied
cognitive illusion called WYSIWTI (what you see is what there is)
that’s been playing throughout this sad event.  When the bombs went
off, I heard media speculation that it was tax day, so it must be a
right wing anti tax nut, and that the bomb was placed on the ground
where it would cause maximum damage to legs (and at the Boston
Marathon) , so it must have been a disgruntled runner, and that it was
probable Somalia’s Al Shabab, trying to blow up Kenyan runners to maximum
effect.

The way the illusion works is this:  we’re able, maybe evolved, to
form conclusions from whatever evidence is available, and we’re good
at it.   We have much poorer capacity to assess the value of the
evidence we’re using and adjust how certain we are about the
conclusion.  So for example, if I see someone make a dumb move on the
road, I’ll decide he’s a bad driver.  An analyst at an insurance company can take
that person’s whole driving record, instrument the car, and analyze
the data about how fast he goes, how hard he hits the breaks, crunch all the numbers, look at comparables, and
decide he’s a bad driver too.
When you test my certainty about my conclusion, and the analyst’s
certainty about her conclusion, you’ll find very little difference.

As I post, we’re a moment later in the story.  Two brothers of Chechen origin are alledged to have committed the crimes.  One is dead, and the other now on the run.  But we’re in the next phase of making the same mistakes.

The information about about Dzhokar Tsarnaev is very poor and scattered.  His Facebook page mentions Islam, his family is from a war-torn part of the former Soviet Union, his uncle was quoted as saying he’s a “loser.”  These are scraps of information, and anything we might conclude from them is barely more likely to be true than something we just make up out of whole cloth.

But that’s not how our minds work.  The moment we form a conclusion,  even on very shaky grounds, it becomes a firmly held belief.

WYSIWTI explains why it’s so painful for entrepreneurs to do the hundreds of interviews that are necessary for finding a valid business model.  They’ve come to the idea that customers have problem X, and they can solve it with product Y, usually based on tiny scraps of evidence.  But having reached the conclusion, the shaky ground faded from view, and asking more questions of more people began to seem like a waste of time.

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