Thursday, December 08, 2005

Hindsight Is Never 20/20

Suppose you are an air marshal. You observe a passenger behaving erratically, running through the aisles of the airplane. He claims to have a bomb in his carry-on luggage. Your job is to protect the passengers in the plane – and yourself. You don’t know if he is bluffing or if he actually has a bomb. In the time it takes to find out, you and the rest of the passengers (including the man claiming to have a bomb) could be dead. What do you do?

Sadly, air marshals in Florida were faced with a similar scenario yesterday afternoon. Acting on the information that they had, they chose to shoot the man rather than to risk the lives of the remaining passengers. It was later discovered that the man did not have a bomb in his possession, and was 44-year-old American, Rigoberto Alpizar. His irrational behavior may have been explained by his bipolar disorder and need for medication.

It is easy and far too common for reporters to hand out blame after more facts come to light. By that time, the reporters do not have to rely on incomplete information. However, they often forget that the actors in their stories are almost always acting on incomplete or incorrect information. The event demonstrates that the cost of obtaining information is not zero. In hindsight, Mr. Alpizar was not a threat. But in the real world, we don’t make decisions based on hindsight. We can only make decisions based on what we know now.

I was once asked for my opinion on sending the military into Iraq. I answered that I would have to know the end results before making a determination. My answer was clearly wrong. Much like poker or blackjack, you never know what cards the other person has. Your decisions can be based only on the cards that you hold and what you know of the statistical possibilities that the other person or the dealer has a better hand than you. You can’t wait until the game ends to place your bets.

No comments: