Confederate Yankee has a rather good piece up that takes the New York Times to task for an article they published on body armor and the US Marines. CY points out that simply studying an object’s failures paints an incomplete — and, in this case, potentially life-threateningly so — picture. One needs to look at samples of the object succeeding and failing, because simply fixing the flaws can result in compromising other areas that are working as intended.
To take CY’s example of automobile accidents, it would be like looking at the Ford Pinto, where the gas tank was between the rear bumper and the rear axle, and therefore vulnerable to rupturing when rear-ended. By the New York Times’ reasoning, the safest place to place the gas tank would be in the front seat, next to the driver — ignoring the possibility of the car getting broadsided and the gas tank bursting right next to the driver.
I was reminded of a puzzler once used on Car Talk. In that case, it was the opposite circumstance — the analysts only had access to the “successful” samples, as the failed ones were lost. But the solution was to study carefully the successes, and to extrapolate what they could about the failures — and only then could they truly attack the problem.
Or, if you like, you can look at the Times’ piece and come up with their ideal solution: each Marine will be clad head-to-toe in fully bulletproof armor at all times. They will be almost unable to move and most likely roast in the Iraqi heat, and be as vulnerable to bombs as all but our most heavily-armored vehicles, but they will be bulletproof.
Just don’t expect them to be conscious, mobile, and in any way effective.