Hindsight Bias

Hindsight is the retrospective view of events and how they unfolded; hindsight 
bias describes overestimation of how easy it should have been to be successful 
and oversimplification of what should have been done (Fischoff 1975; Hawkins 
& Hastie 1990). This has been a particularly prominent issue in counterterrorism 
operations which often result in post-operational reviews, frequently with some 
degree of political motivation. Such reviews are likely to be affected by hindsight 
bias, in which it is difficult, and arguably impossible, to ignore the effect of later 
information on a decision made in the absence of that information. Hindsight 
bias has been a significant public issue in cases such as the London bombings 
and the Haneef case, where—with the benefit of hindsight—commentators 
have been extremely critical of the police response. This has impacted on the 
procedures, policies and practices of future operations and thus is of critical 
Hawkins, SA & Hastie, R 1990, ‘Hindsight: biased judgments of past events 
after the outcomes are known’, Psychological Bulletin, vol. 107, no. 5, pp. 

This is pretty standard academic consideration of hindsight.  Cops often have to make decisions without full evidence and I’m sympathetic to claims that their actions are often viewed by hindsight clowns.  The presence of this bias does not mean mistakes don’t happen and hindsight bias can be overcome.  Generally we would look at the ‘protocols’ of how bias in decision making was ruled out as far as possible.  The following is an example:

Eight systematic steps that can be applied to an analytical problem to encourage good 
1. identifying different hypotheses about what is happening in the domain 
of interest. Heuer suggests that the more uncertain a situation is, and the 
greater the impact of a decision, the more alternative scenarios should be 
2. making a list of the significant evidence and arguments for each hypothesis 
3. refining the hypotheses into a matrix with evidence that is assessed for the 
degree to which it supports the arguments 
4. deleting the evidence that has no diagnostic value 
5. developing tentative conclusions about the relative likelihood of each 
hypothesis and trying to find evidence to disprove hypotheses rather than 
proving them 
6. assessing the sensitivity of the conclusions to a few sources of evidence, 
with the implication being that if those sources of evidence are incorrect 
or subject to a different interpretation then the conclusions may be wrong 
7. reporting conclusions that will include not only the most likely conclusion 
but also alternatives 
8. articulating what evidence should be collected in the future to ensure that 
their assessments are not being deviated from.

We now know from Operation Crevice (the dorks with the huge bag of fertiliser) that two of the London bombers were followed from London to Leeds before dropping off the radar (one was cropped out of a photograph sent to the Americans and might have been recognised there).  The hindsight excuse has been used on this, but this covers another failing – that of lack of resources.  The terrorist threat is supposedly still with us, we know this mistake was made because of resource prioritising, yet we can ‘afford’ to slash police numbers?  One might think a case could be made for redirected our ‘slashed coppers’.  One can already sense in ‘pre-hindsight’ the excuses politicians will make if there is another outrage.


On the lack of facts


I watched John Pilger‘s film ‘The War We Don’t See’ (ITV player) and episode 103 of the Keiser Report (Russia Today) earlier this week.  The first pitched the line that we are always at war and governments and journalists collude to prevent us knowing what is really going on.  RT reminds me of the old Radio Moscow, though without the ludicrous propaganda phrases that made me laugh as a kid listening with my elder brother.  Yet its language on the financial crisis, in a bad show, is refreshing.  The idea in the Keiser Report is that fraud has become the business model, and that fraud squared is how it is all being covered up.

What is easy to say, is that we should, in social democracy, be making our own minds up on the facts.  Almost no one disagrees with this, yet the extent to which we ever do, or even can as a populace is very doubtful.  Banksidebabble, linked at the top of the page, ascribes this to people not being able to think beyond their own interests and, if you like, when these interests are threatened with a slap in the face with a wet fish.  That the media doesn’t put facts before us so we can make up our own minds, whether we are watching Pilger, Keiser, BBC lickspittles, Murdoch’s toadies, reading newspapers or listening to Radio 4, surfing the net or whatever, is utterly obvious.  That claims to the opposite are often made by bureaucrats of reporting rules and duties is disturbing.  Most academic material is really only polemic disguised.

Very nasty fascism took over Germany when it was the most educated, cultured and scientific nation (and a democracy).  We like to think we are beyond such nonsense, yet we are as far now from an open society as when Karl Popper wrote about its enemies (around WW2).  Spinoza once called politics the art of survival amongst ignorance, in a statement much like Banksie’s.  In all this, we are confronted with something similar to a response cop, trying to make sense of multiple claims being made in a dispute, or a detective trying to find evidence amongst those set on concealing it.  Often, the very people doing the investigations are the vested interests themselves, or highly subject, like journalists, to reporting what the interests say (the lobby, being embedded and so on).

One might say, that the Lakatosian legal-commercial paradigm in the West has become decadent (articles in the Harvard Law Review etc.) – but what’s the point of that kind of intellectual argument?  We need something we can drive!  The biggest fact we seem to miss is that life could be much easier than it is, with much less work and that we are screwing even this up with ideologies suited to the days of spades rather than tractors.  The big fact on street protest and the ‘militarisation’ of our cops is that our society is so dud we need either.