We are not models
Gillian Tett, a columnist at the Financial Times, has an article up a couple of days ago that uses a case of could, woulda, shoulda to reflect on the Obama era. That is, she argues that the President's decisions ought not be judged based on the advantage of hindsight.
In making her way through the argument she uses the tale of Sully, the airplane pilot that crash landed a plane in the Hudson after an unfortunate encounter with some birds. According to my interpretation of Tett's interpretation of a movie's interpretation of the events, NTSB took issue with his decision claiming he should have gone back to the airport rather than crash landing the plane. However, Sully (and co-pilot) are not models and had to rely on their own expert judgement of what was best: go back to the airport or land in the river. They chose the river. The NTSB judged an airport landing would have been cheaper and safer. But the models missed the human factor in decision making.
But the most important reason that Sully is thought-provoking is what happened after US Airways flight 1549 ditched into the river. Initially, Sully was hailed in the media as a hero. No wonder — it was an extraordinary feat to land a plane safely on water, keeping all 155 people on board alive.
The National Transport Safety Board (NTSB) was not so easily impressed. It conducted computer simulations to determine whether Sully had taken the right decision to crash-land in the Hudson, and these appeared to suggest that Sully could and should have turned back to land at LaGuardia or Teterboro airports instead. NTSB officials argued at a hearing that this would have been safer for the passengers, and cheaper for the airline.
Sully fought back (spoiler alert), pointing out that the NTSB had made a terrible mistake by ignoring the human factor in its computer models. Most notably, the simulations assumed that as soon as the birds damaged the plane’s engines, the pilots would calmly and immediately head for one of the airports.
That, of course, made sense in hindsight. But what actually happened was that when the engines failed, Sully and his co-pilot frantically tried to assess what had gone wrong, running through checklists, speaking to the tower and crew — and only then deciding to land.
That all-too-human discussion took only 35 seconds. But if you factor in that delay, then the computer simulations show that the plane would have crashed if it had headed for LaGuardia. Landing at the airport only made sense in hindsight, and would only have been possible with a computer-simulated, all-knowing pilot.
I believe there is a tendency to Monday Morning Quarterback with models. But doing so can gloss over the humanness, nuances and complexity of situations.