David Nabhan
Tectonic Shifts

Superlative Israeli Air Force Investigates Mediocrity

Dr. Daniel Kahneman at Hebrew University in Jerusalem won a Nobel Prize stemming from his research into Israeli Air Force fighter pilot training. He found that trainees who were castigated strongly for seriously sub-par tactical errors did better in subsequent trials, but so were superlative results lessened after the best-performing pilots had been lavishly praised for their previous efforts.

What he discovered at play was less a dynamic of improvement or back-sliding correlated with either instructors’ scorn or praise, so much as outliers—either terrible or superlative execution—naturally being mitigated as the average performances of the trainees tended toward a norm. The mathematical average, as it were, overwhelms all the shouting derision or back-slapping lauding of the sternest or most exuberant mentors.

A world that comes together on a regular basis to engage in similar non-stop rebukes of Israel at the United Nations and other international organizations should hardly be the least interested in anything learned by the Israeli Air Force. Like so many world-changing discoveries, however, by so many Jewish scientific and academic pioneers, it turns out that Dr. Kahneman’s insights impinge on matters far beyond guarding the air space of the Jewish state. And since the world always takes a break from castigating Israel long enough to snap up whatever advantages stem from her research and discoveries, the world took notice here as well.

Israeli flight instructors aren’t the only ones deluding themselves that their frowns or smiles truly influence future events. We all do. Dr. Kahneman’s work implies that a probabilistic “regression toward the mean” will tend to pull all human endeavors toward a middling average.

The human psyche simply isn’t aware that this inexorable mathematics is working in the background, so powerfully factoring into shaping our observations of the results of uncountable decisions made that therefore may be coloring our judgment, giving rise to incorrectly perceived reasons for either good or bad outcomes. This dynamic has consequences which reach into many important fields of human endeavor—investments, medicine, sports, politics, education, etc. Some things are going to improve or worsen not because of anything anyone did or didn’t do; the math will simply wear down the rough spots sticking out as wind and water erosion do with outcroppings.

Our entire civilization engages in similar mass misinterpretations concerning many public policy debates in accordance with Dr. Kahneman’s precepts.  The best example of that is the collective perception of society as a whole at present concerning its overall upcoming prospects. According to the cold, hard math, our civilization shouldn’t be lurching toward some terrible, and mathematically unlikely, impending apocalyptic near-future, nor be on the brink of a golden age dawning either. The power of the numbers says that those extremes are improbable; the mathematics suggests that we’re somewhere in the middle between those two aberrations.

And, no matter how much time passes that’s where we’re destined to remain. Since there is no sense of where the end is, the middle—the average, the mediocre—is anywhere too. And that’s bad news for the doomsday peddlers and panic mongers, but something that might alleviate the stress and anxiety of the rest of us.

About the Author
David Nabhan is a science and science fiction writer. He is the author of "Earthquake Prediction: Dawn of the New Seismology" (2017) and three other books on seismic forecasting.
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