I blame Val McDermid. I read her excellent book Forensics – The Anatomy of Crime earlier this year. Since then I’ve developed a bit of a fascination with the gruesome subject. I really enjoyed Gabriel Weston’s thoughtful BBC documentary series, Catching History’s Criminals – The Forensics Story. All very reassuring, but forensic science has its sinister side too. This essay about Forensic DNA Phenotyping shows how racist ideology can underlie (and be reproduced by) what appears to be a scientific breakthrough in fighting crime: Sci-Fi Crime Drama with a Strong Black Lead.
2. Survivorship Bias
This entertaining TED Talk by David McRaney makes me wish that someone had introduced me to survivorship bias back when I was around twenty one years old. ‘Survivorship bias’ refers to our human tendency to favour examples of survivorship – in the broadest sense – and to ignore the usually far greater evidence of failure. This is a problem because survivors are pretty rare and seeking advice from them results in a seriously skewed perception of reality. People who want to open restaurants will pay attention to the successful restaurants in town, but fail to research the more numerous restaurants that shut down. Whatever the survivors might claim, its difficult to identify the real source of their success. Perhaps they were just lucky. McRaney argues that the failures can often provide us with more useful information. There’s a longer essay available on his website if you’re interested.