Stats Made Easy

Practical Tools for Effective Experimentation

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Making the most from unhappy events

(Photo by my nephew Ross Nelson taken in the immediate aftermath of the I35 bridge collapse)

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” So begins Tolstoy’s classic novel Anna Karenina. According to Steven M. Shugan of the Warrington College of Business at University of Florida, it can be inferred from this statement that the most revealing factors for success might exhibit negligible variation among survivors in the struggle for dominance by enterprises at all levels, from businesses to entire civilizations. In honor to Tolstoy’s memorable introduction, he introduces the statistical term “TAK bias” in his editorial titled “The Anna Karenina Bias: Which Variables to Observe?” published in Vol. 26, No. 2, March-April 2007 of Marketing Science (underlines by me). (The author credits Pulitzer Prize winner Jared Diamond for introducing the Anna Karenina principle.) Shugan fears that many studies of what constitutes success are based on passive data collection that excludes nonsurvivors.

Ideally, researchers can take an active role in setting factor levels that produce a range of responses from failure to success. This is feasible for our clientele -- mainly industrial experimenters working on process and product development or manufacturing improvement. For obvious reasons, it does no good to only produce perfect results. To put it plainly, one learns from his or her mistakes.

In our business of software development, one hopes that only good code will be written, but if it fails, ideally it will fail fast as pointed out in an article by Jim Shore published by IEEE SOFTWARE in September/October 2004 .

Unhappily, we need not be concerned about TAK bias in the case of a catastrophic failure such as the collapse of the I35 bridge entering downtown Minneapolis. Returning from Sunday’s exhilarating Minnesota Twins game, featuring a team-record 17 strikeouts by their ace pitcher Santana, my bubble of happiness burst when crossing the Mississippi on the Old Stone Bridge just up-river from the carnage. I have no doubt that the next bridge will be built for the ages, but I am less sanguine about other structures that still stand in spite of their decrepitude.


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