A Forensic Engineer’s Short Course in Flawed Analysis, Or A Norden Bombsight Insight

This story will makes two important points about technical reasoning that in the heat of combat, disasters, disputes, commerce, parenting or politics often get overlooked.

They are:

1.If your starting data is flawed, the rest of your argument becomes inherently flawed

2.Just because one thing looks like the other, it does not mean that they are comparable.

The problem is that it is so easy to hide these issues in clever packaging. Only when somebody carefully analyzes the argument and looks at the underlying data, will it become apparent that it is fatally flawed.

The example I will use is a TED lecture by Malcolm Gladwell. Malcolm Gladwell is the author of “Blink, the Power of Thinking without Thinking” and other popular observational works and TED is an organization that organizes symposia where smart people listen to other smart people who discuss unusual discoveries or insights. A TED lecture is about 15 minutes and there are some truly incredibly useful lectures such as the Hans Rosling lectures, but not all TED lectures rise to that level.

So that is the setting; here is the story…..

Professor Alan Rowen (Webb professor, marine engineer, and SNAME mainstay), and I exchange books and like to talk about books. Especially books that treat obscurish historical or technical subjects. Alan gave me a book about the Eighth Air Force and quite central to that story is the Norden bomb sight. The Norden bombsight is a very controversial and near mythical device that, next to the atomic bomb, was one of the highest cost technological devices in WWII.

In the book I read that it was designed by an engineer named Carl Norden and the book noted he was Dutch. Well I did not know anything about this man and went on Google to get some further background. One of the first hits I got was a TED Lecture by Malcolm Gladwell on the Norden Bombsight.

A TED lecture! Well that could be interesting. So I get some coffee and settle back to be regaled by brilliance. The lecture starts and Mr. Gladwell mentions the Norden bombsight and mentions Carl Norden and states that Mr. Norden was Swiss. Well that was an error, but it is minor, who cares. But then Mr. Gladwell characterizes Mr. Norden’s thinking and behavior as typically Swiss and draws conclusions from that. Using a Dutchman as an example of Swiss behavior is an undeniably incorrect argument. Neverthless, he then goes on to use example upon example to compare things that in the end may be interesting, but are not related at all.

The peculiar thing is that if I had not been alerted on the nationality issue (Let’s face it, who knows and cares about the difference between Swiss and Dutch. There actually were over 200 comments on the lecture before somebody mentioned Norden was not Swiss), I might have uncritically followed his argument and applauded his delightful lecture. But this one error led me to critically examine the whole lecture and notice that it was a piece of junk. I will not discuss all the flaws in his argument for the simple reason that showing the errors in a poor argument takes much longer than the statement of the argument itself. But if, once warned, you were to critically examine Mr. Gladwell’s lecture you will see that it is slick marketing instead of solidly reasoned insight and he might make a point of sorts, but it is simply not supported by his data or his examples. (Mr. Gladwell is not alone. This is how Matt Taibbi calls out Thomas Friedman of “The Earth is Flat” fame. Mr. Taibbi also notes that refuting a bad argument takes more time than it takes to make the original flawed argument, but he also expends some energy to refute Mr. Friedman’s arguments.)

M&O literally spends thousands of hours dealing with poorly formulated technical arguments (not uncommonly named “opposing expert reports”). Whenever we are faced with such a poorly developed report we tend to ask ourselves: “Why would a reasonable person do this, and why do we now have to spend so much time fixing these fatally flawed arguments?”. Unfortunately, we do know why; it takes time and energy to examine data and arguments and lots of people just hope you will not expend the effort. But not expending the effort, over time, allows all types of flawed arguments to become flawed perceived truths and at that stage we all pay the price.

Call us if you need forensic analysis.