Iterations of the Survivorship Bias Meme

If you are Online at all, you have probably seen the survivorship bias plane:

It has inspired new memes. They are funniest when posted without any explanation. Two recent examples are:


Sometimes the picture of the plane is used as a whole argument, without any words.

Visual meme swapping is part of essential, sometimes serious, conversation today. Will historians in the future be able to piece together what we were talking about? Likely, this type of chatter will be lost because it is hard to analyze, as most of verbal communication has been lost to date. EWED can be a Travel Blog. Detailing internet culture is part of documenting the world today.

Jason Crawford wrote an explainer thread about the plane in 2020.  

Planes that get shot in the engine *don’t return from their mission*. They go down. The sample is not *representative* of the true distribution of bullet holes. It is a biased sample, because it only includes the survivors. Hence, “survivor bias”, a form of selection bias.

In this case, not only is the sample not representative, it’s actually *inversely* correlated with what we want to decide. The diagram doesn’t show where planes get shot—it shows where planes get shot *and still survive*.

In 2021, Randy AU wrote a blog explainer with more background in both math and history.

Economists seem especially eager to throw this meme around online, which could be due to our obsession with the counter-intuitive. Part of economic thinking is being able to imagine what you don’t see. The key to understanding the plane meme is imagining the planes that never returned because they were shot down. For economic thinking, consider counterfactuals and what might have happened under different policies.

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