Garbage in, garbage out


Robert Strange McNamara (that was his middle name) is dead.  I will leave to many others the necessary task of excoriating his memory for helping us into the destructive quagmire of the Vietnam War, a war in which millions of Asians died, and tens of thousands of Americans were killed and maimed, and a war, the futility of which, he realized very soon, but against which he would not speak, because…Why?  Well, good question!

No, I would like to point out that Bob was an early and intense booster of computer modeling, or Systems Analysis, as it was called then.  He was a corporate manager, not a scientist, and he was not dissecting natural systems, but his mistakes are valuable lessons to all who would put their faith in computer models of large systems.  Consider (italics mine):

McNamara reduced the war to problem sets, data he could manipulate…McNamra’s insistence on counting features of the war- his infamous “body count” of enemy kills and his pacification scheme to color-code villages as to the proportion of inhabitants that remained pro-enemy or pro-Saigon-meant treating war as a science, not as an art…McNamara violated Clausewitz’s warning to strategists about “the countless minor incidents – “the kind you can never really foresee” that bring “about effects that cannot be measured…”

from The Suicide of an Elite by Patrick Lloyd Hatcher, 1990

It is well known that much of the input to his models, e.g., body counts, was wildly inaccurate and manipulated to enhance the reputation of field units delivering the data.  Color-coded maps…too bad he didn’t have GIS!  And those nasty details that turn out to be important.  GCMs anyone?


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