Beware of Outliers

An outlier, in the field of operations research, is an unusual event that can distract the observer from the normal run of events. Because an outlier is an unusual event, it is more memorable than events of the same kind that occur more frequently.

Take the case of the late Bill Buckner, who was a steady first baseman and good hitter for many years. What is Buckner remembered for? Not his many accomplishments in a long career. No, he is remembered for a fielding error that cost his team (the accursed Red Sox) game 6 of the 1986 World Series, a game that would have clinched the series for the Red Sox had they won it. But they lost it, and went on to lose the deciding 7th game.

Buckner’s bobble was an outlier that erased from the memories of most fans his prowess as a player and the many occasions on which he helped his team to victory. He is remembered, if at all, for the error — though he erred on less than 1/10 of 1 percent of more than 15,000 fielding plays during his career.

I am beginning to think of America’s decisive victory in Word War II as an outlier.

To be continued.

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