Abraham Wald and the Missing Bullet Holes

At the Applied Mathematics Group−Columbia, dozens of young women bent over Marchant desktop calculators were calculating formulas for the optimal curve a fighter should trace out through the air in order to keep an enemy plane in its gunsights

.. This was a group where Milton Friedman, the future Nobelist in economics, was often the fourth-smartest person in the room.

.. So here’s the question. You don’t want your planes to get shot down by enemy fighters, so you armor them. But armor makes the plane heavier, and heavier planes are less maneuverable and use more fuel. Armoring the planes too much is a problem; armoring the planes too little is a problem. Somewhere in between there’s an optimum. The reason you have a team of mathematicians socked away in an apartment in New York City is to figure out where that optimum is.

.. But the damage wasn’t uniformly distributed across the aircraft. There were more bullet holes in the fuselage, not so many in the engines.

.. The armor, said Wald, doesn’t go where the bullet holes are. It goes where the bullet holes aren’t: on the engines.

.. The reason planes were coming back with fewer hits to the engine is that planes that got hit in the engine weren’t coming back. Whereas the large number of planes returning to base with a thoroughly Swiss-cheesed fuselage is pretty strong evidence that hits to the fuselage can (and therefore should) be tolerated.

If you go to the recovery room at the hospital, you’ll see a lot more people with bullet holes in their legs than people with bullet holes in their chests. But that’s not because people don’t get shot in the chest; it’s because the people who get shot in the chest don’t recover.

.. countries don’t win wars just by being braver than the other side, or freer, or slightly preferred by God. The winners are usually the guys who get 5% fewer of their planes shot down, or use 5% less fuel, or get 5% more nutrition into their infantry at 95% of the cost. That’s not the stuff war movies are made of, but it’s the stuff wars are made of. And there’s math every step of the way.

.. To a mathematician, the structure underlying the bullet hole problem is a phenomenon called survivorship bias.

.. a comprehensive 2011 study in the Review of Finance covering nearly 5,000 funds found that the excess return rate of the 2,641 survivors is about 20% higher than the same figure recomputed to include the funds that didn’t make it.