Malcolm Gladwell’s What The Dog Saw is a book collection of a number of his articles for The New Yorker which includes a piece called “Connecting The Dots” which is all about how obvious disasters are in hindsight. The crux of the article is as follows: (emphasis mine)

This question–whether we revise our judgment of events after the fact–is something that psychologists have paid a great deal of attention to.

For example, on the eve of Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China, the psychologist Baruch Fischhoff asked a group of people to estimate the probability of a series of possible outcomes of the trip. What were the chances that the trip would lead to permanent diplomatic relations between China and the United States? That Nixon would meet with the leader of China, Mao Tse-tung, at least once? That Nixon would call the trip a success?

As it turned out, the trip was a diplomatic triumph, and Fischhoff then went back to the same people and asked them to recall what their estimates of the different outcomes of the visit had been. He found that the subjects now, overwhelmingly, “remembered” being more optimistic than they had actually been. If you originally thought that it was unlikely that Nixon would meet with Mao, afterward, when the press was full of accounts of Nixon’s meeting with Mao, you’d “remember” that you had thought the chances of a meeting were pretty good.

Fischhoff calls this phenomenon “creeping determinism”–the sense that grows on us, in retrospect, that what has happened was actually inevitable–and the chief effect of creeping determinism, he points out, is that it turns unexpected events into expected events. As he writes, “The occurrence of an event increases its reconstructed probability and makes it less surprising than it would have been had the original probability been remembered.”

Creeping determinism is one of those ideas that lodges itself in your brain and keeps making popping up when you read things like this: “Students complained about prof charged in rampage“:

Students said they signed a petition and complained to no avail about the classroom conduct of an Alabama professor accused of killing three colleagues and wounding three others in a shooting rampage at a faculty meeting.

The students upset with biology professor Amy Bishop told The Associated Press they went to University of Alabama in Huntsville administrators at least three times a year ago, complaining that she was ineffective in the classroom and had odd, unsettling ways.

The students said Bishop never made eye contact during conversations, taught by reading out of a textbook and made frequent references to Harvard University, her beloved alma mater. “We could tell something was off, that she was not like other teachers,” said nursing student Caitlin Phillips.

Okay, so this this teacher was kind of creepy, and became a crazed gunwoman, but how many professors out there are a little creepy? A little off? And what percent go postal?

This seeming creeping determinism strikes me as a part of the “disaster ritual” (another Gladwell phrase) that we go through every time something like this happens: identify the shooter, identify the motive, identify the missed warning signs, and find closure.

Edit (2 hours later): Argh, the article has been rewritten, excising the above quotation and replacing it with

Students said they had no reason to think she might turn violent. But after Bishop’s arrest Friday on charges of shooting to death three colleagues during a faculty meeting at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, the complaints add to the picture that has emerged of her as a brilliant but erratic figure.

Okay, fair enough.

Advertisements