Air planes played one of the central roles in World War II. They immediately surpassed the expectations of just strapping a machine gun onto a single engine plane and calling it a fighter plane that had been the standard in World War I. They became crucial strategic players and bombers were soon among the most important air craft. However, because they were bigger, slower, and harder to maneuver they were also easy targets. The UK alone lost nearly 12,000 bombers. Because these air crafts were so important to missions and the success of the war, a group called the Center for Naval Analyses started to study the planes that survived missions and noted where there were bullet holes. They concluded that they needed to add more armor and protection to those areas hoping that it would help them lose fewer planes.
Then a statistician named Abraham Wald got involved who came to the exact opposite conclusion. He threw out this term called survivorship bias and, at least in my mind, called them all idiots under his breath. You see, they were only studying the planes that had survived. So while all the planes they studied had multiple bullet holes in the wings and some other areas they were still able to make it home. However, bullet holes in the cockpit, engines, and fuel tanks were basically nonexistent in their research because those were the shots that destroyed the most planes. Wald suggested reinforcing those areas instead.
Survivor bias isn’t anything new. In fact, it’s been around since at least 323 BC with Diogenes. It is still a trap that we fall into all the time, especially in the church. Typically we like to do the same things we’ve done before because they are familiar, we know they work, and probably because it’s a good thing to begin with. We see all of our friends enjoying it, we enjoy it, so it must be a good thing, and so we do more of those types of things. In a sense, and I wish this was a different term, we cater to the survivors or the ones who are already home. We don’t always pay attention to the ones who are lost.
I believe it was my Intro to Ministry professor who gave me this poem, he also said that if he ever caught us with a copy in our Bible, he’d fail us… Or maybe it was flail us, I wasn’t paying attention. But even 13 years later I still have a copy of Sam Shoemaker’s poem “I Stand By The Door” in my Bible. I’d like to share it with you now, and even though it’s a bit longer than my usual blog post, encourage you to read it. After all, you’ve made it this far, and this poem has withstood the test of time whereas my words will fade away.